Farewell, My Turnabout [June 6 (Fri)]

Thursday was a free day, but I felt ill that morning so for me it just ended up being a sleep day. The week was packed with back-to-back events anyways, so the rest was appreciated. Friday marked the last day of events for our program and consisted of visiting the Computerspielemuseum (Computer Game Museum), and a trip to the company Wargaming.net.

The museum was a lot smaller than I expected, though I shouldn’t have been surprised considering its very specific focus. I blame having gone to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester which is pretty large, though focuses on far more than just video games. We had a guided tour at first, which I personally found uninteresting I am sad to say. The most engaging part to me was the end where we saw a bit of the games developed in East Germany during the Cold War. After some free time at the museum (where I learned I am still bad at Donkey Kong) we left.

Wargaming was located in a popular area in Berlin, a bit suffocating considering the small amount of space they had consisting of a few rooms in an apartment. We broke into small groups and rotated between the three people there to learn about the company, their flagship title World of Tanks, and the industry. One important thing I learned there, as emphasised by Jorg, is how many opportunities the industry gives you. One of the big men of the company had a lot of different struggles and failures, such as not liking a company he worked for was heading and starting his own, to dealing with bankruptcy and being in the red for years before seeing a silver lining, to being where he is today. The visit was short as the workers needed to get ready for E3 which was right the next Tuesday. That last little fact was another little spark to rekindle my passion for making games; someday I’d like to be at E3 to show of something I helped work on.

The day finally ended with a grand dinner after which some shared farewells and we broke off to rest for the next morning where people would begin to depart. In the end I can say I really enjoyed the trip. I learned a lot and experienced even more. I think this study abroad will be a defining point in how I approach school and work in the coming years and I hope everything that happened here will aid me in becoming what I really want to be in life.

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Death March [June 4 (Wed)]

Wednesday we made another trip to talk to German government officials. We took a brief look at the top of one of their buildings that had a cool spiral walkway you could go up and down. Well, despite looking cool, I have a mild case of acrophobia and did not have a good time going on it myself. Later we went to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the biggest political party in Germany at the moment.

At the CDU we listened to Peter Tauber, the secratary general of the party. With our host, since Peter himself is a busy man, we learned a lot about the CDU and how a lot of their efforts have been to getting the youth on their side. Peter is a fan of games, and the head of the party, Angela Merkel, seems like a rational woman with a fine head on her shoulders, so I believe games will continue to move to getting the respect they deserve as a medium.

Later that day we had a party at the Games Acadamy, one of the few institutions focused entirely on game development. We did not get much of an introduction to them or how they operate, but by conversation with the students we got a bit of insight on what the students actually do there. I found it interesting that some of the students were studying pure game design without learning any programming. I’m not sure how far they can get like that, but best of luck to all my aspiring game developers! On a side note, I learned that two german beers is enough to make me tipsy to the point where I lose my inhibitions. A valuable lesson I will not soon forget.

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King Wooga [June 3 (Tue)]

Tuesday was a tiring, but important day for us as we would be visiting two companies, King and Wooga. While the trip to Ubisoft Blue Byte in Dussledorf was nice, I wanted to see how other companies operate in Germany as well. Seeing actual industry people at work in other countries isn’t a chance one gets everyday, after all.

We started with King, best-known for their game Candy Crush Saga. I haven’t played it myself, and have no desire to, but I know plenty of people (including my mom, a complete non-gamer) who do so I figure it is a good opportunity nonetheless. Their studio was rather small, located on the top floor of a building. They claimed it was a temporary space, but if so at least it was furnished a bit. All the computers and workers were in the single, large room and in the corner there was a “Think Tank” for brainstorming.

We only had a short time at the company, so we went right into having the “winners” of the game jam present their games. Despite time for improvements, our game, Food Friends, still had a couple issues, but I was happy with what we showed off. We got some tips from one of the workers who seemed to enjoy our game despite an annoying control bug. After grabbing some swag, we broke off for a bit before meeting up to go to Wooga.

I’m glad we saw King first, because what Wooga had prepared for us blew King out of the water. Their offices were very unique with colorful stairs and doors every which way. They presented to us some things about how they operate. They make tiny teams of two to create a mass of prototypes of which only the best get promoted, eventually less and less until only a few release. Of these few only a bit go on to become big hits too. More than discouraging me in seeing how many games it takes to make a hit, these presentations taught me the value of prototyping and ensuring an idea you have is actually fun before investing time, money, and resources to it.

One of the developers there from America, Brian Davis, also gave us a very nice presentation on things he wish he knew before going into game design. A lot of the points he made were ones I had heard time and time again, reinforcing them by hearing them in person from someone so experienced. The one that always sticks out to me most is to have other hobbies; being well-cultured and experienced in life are things a designer absolutely must have. It reminds me of a quote from the man who made Space Invaders saying that the it was not the people who played games, but the people who grew as creators who made better games. Only through experience can you understand what experience you want for the player; this experience drives the design, not trying to imitate things that already exist.

Both of the company visits were interesting to me, and though Wooga was a seemingly perfect place to work at a glance, some thinking sparked by a friend’s research on the company tells me it would be too cutthroat an environment to be in. While I am happy to learn about the industry from these two company visits, neither really inspire me to want to work in Germany.

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Berlin du bist so wunderbar [June 2 (Mon)]

On Sunday we did nothing but go to a park to relax after the jam and have a final gathering with the Paderborn students. I’m not a huge fan of nature, especially in the summer thanks to bugs, but with food and friends any environment can be a nice one. At the end of the day we said our goodbyes for the next morning we would be heading off to Berlin, where only a portion of the Paderborn students would be accompanying us.

The next morning we were on the suffocating train to Berlin. The train ride was not a particularly enjoyable one, though I at least got to at least try and rest in the sauna of a train compartment as opposed to my jam members hard at work on our game. We would have no time to rest after exiting the train, since after getting our local transportation passes for the week we only made a brief stop at our hotel (motel?) before heading to the building for the Bundestag, the German parliament.

There we got to hear from a politician himself on how the government looks at games and what they are trying to do with them from this point. In the past, video games were targeted by the government and blamed for things like addiction in children and school shootings. However, that perception has generally changed and games are being treated as a more serious medium for art and education through things such as awards given by the government.

We also learned that the EU wants to standardize laws involving data protection, specifically how much of it companies can compile and what they do with it. Companies like Google and Facebook have a huge amount of data, but what is done with it is unregulated. The goal is not to restrict how much data they can take and use, but rather make more transparent for the sake of the user what is done with their information.

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Pearl Jam [May 29, 30, 31 (Thur, Fri, Sat)]

From Thursday to Saturday marked one of the biggest events of the study abroad, the game jam. The jam was to be held in the University’s GamesLab and would have all of us RIT students working with the German students together. About 60 students showed up to the event, a number that astounded me. We were given the topic of “trans-Atlantic friendship” with an emphasis on something for small screens. We were broken off into small groups of 3 or 4 to first brainstorm potential game ideas with this theme in mind. My group came up with the idea that I would eventually end up working on for the jam. After brainstorming time, each group put their idea on the board and everyone voted for their favorite ideas. The few with the most votes then had teams built around them via volunteering, with slight adjustments made to try and balance both American and German students per team, and programmers and artists per team.

It was then that we all began to get with our teams to start hacking out our game. My team’s game was the aforementioned brainstormed one, Food Friends. The idea was that one of the biggest ways to share culture with those from another country is through food. So the premise of the game is you have iconic food from various countries falling from the top of the screen and people form different countries (denoted by wearing flags of their country as capes) on the bottom eating the food. You have to ensure that you the people eat food NOT from their country (so as to encourage sharing food of cultures) otherwise the person would get fat and explode. A rather simple game fit for smartphones and the like.

This was the first game jam I ever participated in, so I had no idea what I was in for. We had 5 American students and 3 German students, and likewise 5 of us were programmers. I immediately identified that it would be an issue for us to have so many programmers on a game that was likely to be simple to program. The first issue began with us trying to decide what to make our game in. Though all programmers, the skill sets in what programs and languages we are comfortable using differed widely between us. For some reason we initially decided to work in Unity 2D despite none of us knowing how to use it. This ended up being a practice in futility, and after a few hours of nothing we ended up swapping to HTML5 canvas with Javascript. Only me and one other person working on the code really knew Javascript well, though, which was especially awkward considering everyone but me had a laptop and could work in the same room together.

After feeling like I was doing nothing for a while, I decided I should probably just work in the computer room even if it would mean constantly having to get up and go back and forth to clarify design decisions. Unfortunately for me, this late start meant I wasn’t involved with the core code components for our game. I had a lot of fun working on the things I was tasked, such as a simple particle system, but the amount of progress that was made on the core parts were pretty lacking well into the second day. Just to be clear, I am not trying to discredit the man who was essentially taking the role of lead programmer, or the German students and American one who had to struggle with using a language as strange as Javascript for the first time. However I can’t help but feel that if I had just tried to be more of a leader instead of being satisfied as a follower I could have really helped development of our project to that point.

Despite the early frustrations including the sad prospect of my work possibly not even making it into the game, our team really went into overdrive on the final day of the game jam. Like true programmers, we all switched into crunch mode and got all of our core design and features into the game. The “art department” also did great work all through the jam and delivered to us assets we instantly got in. Our work continued to the last second of the jam before presentations.

During the presentations I was amazed to see all of the really implementations of the winning ideas from the other teams. The game jam really made me remember why I applied for the GDD program at RIT in the first place and rekindled a dying flame in my heart, so to speak. The jam had ups and downs, but in the end we had something to be proud of, and we even won fan favorite and the honor of presenting our game to King when we were to go to Berlin and visit them.  (My only regret to winning was that it meant we had to keep working on the game after the jam.) This was my favorite part of the study abroad, and an experience I won’t soon forget.

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Great City of Beer: Dusseldorf [May 28 (Wed)]

We woke up early today for a day trip to Dusseldorf. The trip was tiring, and knowing we had to make the same journey back on the same day didn’t help. When we finally made it to Dusseldorf we headed straight to Ubisoft Blue Byte’s studio. Blue Byte being the company that created the popular in Germany Settlers series who were later bought by Ubisoft. We were given a nice presentation by some of the workers there, former students of the University of Paderborn and GamesLab.

We learned a bit about how a game company, in particular one that is a subsidary of a larger corporation, operates and the challenges that they face. One of these challenges was regarding having an online game that expands to many different regions. Different countries accept different payment methods, so the company has to set up connections with the companies who are used as the most popular ones in that area. Another challenge is that of the different cultural implications things in games have in other countries. One example they gave was how China mandates “fatigue” systems in online games for players under 18 as a measure against addiction.

We also learned about the day to day tasks and role of a game producer. A producer needs to spend a lot of time talking with people on the team, making sure everyone is on the same page for how things need to get made. He also needs to listen to other people such as investors and upper management who want a say in what goes into the game. One example was that for a superhero game, the licensing company may mandate certain characters, powers, references, etc. to be included in the game, driving the design of it. I imagine it is a difficult role trying to keep the game consistant with the vision of all the different people who have a say in it.

Lastly we learned a bit about the different quality assurance strategies a company uses to test their games during development. These include things such as paper prototypes (using paper to simulate gameplay and/or interface) and diary studies (where people send regular reports about their playtests.) I personally wonder how business models such as Early Access will change the way companies address QA testing for their games. After the lectures we got to see the studio and some of the workers in the middle of work.

After the company visit we had some free time to explore the city. I saw lots of cool potential souveniers, but opted to buy nothing but a bit of ice cream before our scheduled restaurant dinner. After eating my pizza and hanging out at the restaurant to listen more to the workers from Blue Byte who joined us, we headed back to Paderborn late into the night for some much needed rest. The game jam would begin the next day and we all needed to be in tip-top shape.

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The Girl Nixdorf [May 27 (Tue)]

On this fine Tuesday we took a trip to the Heinz Nixdorf Museum, the biggest computer museum in the world. Conviniently located in Paderborn, it was just a short bus ride to get there. At the museum we had a tour guide to help us through and explain the finer points of the various exhibits and displays. The museum was split into a couple of different floors representing the two big eras before and after the computer. We learned about things like the ENIAC and the development of the supercomputer. I found it facinating how rapidly technology develops following Moore’s Law and how what took up a room half a century ago can now fit in a tiny chip today. After the tour we had some free time where I looked at the exhibits featuring more modern tech.

After the museum we had some free time before we were to meet at the GamesLab for a lecture by Jorg about the German game industry. This was, of course, one of the reasons I decided to go on this study abroad so I was excited. In the lecture I learned some things like how video games in Germany started just from imports form other countries. When they started to develop their own games, they tended to focus on strategy and simulation games that emphasised resourse management. Inn modern times there is a large trend focusing towards free-to-play games with things like the long running Settlers series switching to the model. A lot of this part of the lecture focused on the business side of things and making money, which I accept as something I will need to consider when I make games, but in this respect is not something I like or take interest in.

There was another party following this, but I wasn’t feeling too hot so I decided to retire early in my hotel room for the trip to Dusseldorf the next day.

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Paderborn to be Wild [May 26 (Mon)]

This day, Monday, marked the first real day of the study abroad program. The night before those of us RIT students who were there had an informal meeting at the University of Paderborn with a couple of the German students and the big man on campus, Jorg who went over briefly what we would be doing the week.

Our first day started off with a quick tour of the University and some of its facilities including their cafeteria and radio station. I made the wise decision of purchasing some healthy juice at one of their campus stores since I was sick from my first few days of being in Germany before the program began.

Next, we were guided through the city of Paderborn proper on foot. It is a nice little town with buildings more modest than I had seen in Germany my first couple of nights in the country. Despite going to school in Rochester, I was still surprised at how small the  city was. We ended up eating at a Chinese buffet for lunch for the sake of not spending a lot of money so early into the trip. This was a pretty good choice since it allowed us all to relax, eat, and chat with our new German pals. I learned quite a few things here about how people from Germany think about things as opposed to us. One not-so-professional example being pickup lines and phrases that carry over, like “That’s what she said.”

Afterwards, our tour continued through the city where we saw parks and a nice cathedral. Some history was imparted onto us concerning a window in the cathedral containing three rabbits in a circle, each sharing their ears with the others. After playing in a park for a bit and eating some delicious German ice cream, we split off for a bit of free time before we were to meet at the University’s GamesLab. I opted to go back to my room for some rest and medicine to ease my sickness and allergies.

At the GamesLab we found that the students had prepared a party to welcome us. I enjoyed the food and company of the remainder of the German students. It was very cool to see them show off some of the stuff that they made in the GamesLab. Their program is different than the Game Design and Development one at RIT in that our program is a degree with normal degree requirements, but theirs is an additional thing that Computer Science and Art students can take. This means they show real passion and devotion to making games rather than just do the bare minimum for grades that I often see, and am personally guilty of at times, from RIT students. That they make full-scale games in a large group over the course of a year is also something I think is really cool since at RIT, GDD students, for classes, can only really make quick projects (done in a quarter/semester or less) in much smaller groups.

I also had the blessed opportunity to witness Freddy attempt to show the German students a project he and I worked on this past semester for one of our classes. It took a few hours and trying on different computers before he could get the thing working; the wait not worth the payoff in my opinion.

All in all this day was a good start to the program and really helped start adjusting my mentality to how I treat my goal of making games.

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Walking and Waiting

Wednesday wasn’t the best, for me.

Our trip to Parliament, at the beginning of the day, was low-key but not necessarily bad; it was pretty nice getting to see Berlin from up high. Afterwards, though, when we had free time in Pottsdammerplatz, I had trouble finding much to do; there wasn’t a tremendous amount in the area besides restaurants, as far as I could tell.

I did get a chance to view a Salvador Dali exhibit, which was excellent, but sadly a bit short; once that was over, I had trouble killing time until 2:00.

Then we went to visit the CDU, which felt… contextless, I guess? It was like we were learning about German politics, but I felt like we didn’t actually learn much in the process, and I still didn’t really get how it tied to video games. A couple people fell asleep, so we were taken on a 50-minute walk “to wake us up” before the party.  Pretty much everyone agreed that this was a wholly punitive measure, and – at least in my case – one that only tired me out more. I felt too exhausted to get anywhere near the party in the evening; I ended up lounging in my room, feeling like the day was a bit of a waste.

I definitely feel as if the schedule could have been tighter today, and the walk didn’t help – we had too much time and (for me, anyway) too little to fill it with.

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Berlin Day 2

Today got off to a somewhat disappointing start with the visit to King in the morning. Honestly, I felt kind of unsure why most of us were there; as opposed to the other visits thus far, where we were receiving a presentation or holding a discussion, here it felt like our group was putting everything forth. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, by any means; but to me, it felt like I was really there just to make it easier to keep track of everyone.

After we left, though, the day quickly picked up steam. At first, when it seemed like we were all going to the chocolate museum, I was a bit put off; I’ve basically been ignoring my diet entirely on this trip, and I didn’t need that fact to be emphasized even more. Thankfully, a small contingent of us ended up going to Alexanderplatz early instead, which turned out great – we had a leisurely walk and a nice, light lunch on the way, and afterwards got a head start on looking through the stores.

I’ve been wanting a chance to really go shopping for almost a weeknow, and it was a very nice change of pace to really feel like I was in the city. Our visit to Wooga later in the day was also lovely; the environment was pleasant and they seemed to have a lot to say. It definitely felt like the “ideal” studio visit to me.

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