Last Night in Austin

Zack Booth Simpson's Pond

Zack Booth Simpson gave an interesting lecture last week at the Blanton Museum on UT campus…the Evolution of Evolutionary Design. I met Zack when he was technical director at Origin Systems, years ago. Since, he’s taken himself away from commercial games and into scientifically-influenced art and molecular biology, among other things.

At the talk, I got to see Richard Garriot for the first time since his return from space. (I got to say, “Welcome back to Earth, man.” Not something I get to say to friends often, except in the cases where I mean it figuratively, after someone has gone off on a delusional tirade or a severe bender.) We touched briefly on Ultima IV–due to recent commentary across the ‘net–which always gives me a thrill, imaging what a modern Ultima IV would look like.

The subject(s) of the Blanton talk were informed by Zack’s position at the nexus of science, art and bricklaying and the speech was excellent; catch it via video or repeat performance if you can. Pleasing nerds of all flavors, Zack covered, no lie:

Ornamentation, history of
Algorithms, genetic
Craftsmanship, death and rebirth of
Art, definition of
Culture, development of
DNA nano-technology
Robots, self-replicating
Affine programs
Whale sperm
Suburban architecture
Cell phone towers
Life, meaning of

Toward the end of the talk, Zack showed off some of his new procedural tech-tool-toys, which always fire the imagination.

(Technically, this post is a day or two late, but had I completed it the day following Zack’s speech–as I planned–the subject line would be accurate.)


After hearing about them for a while, I finally started listening to Glasvegas this week. One part melodrama, one part grit, I love their music entirely.

I’m playtesting my iPhone game a lot right now, near the end of the project. (This is, more or less, a regenerative side project I’m doing with a handful of other people, while working on longer-term first-person RPG-style stuff with Arkane Studios.) Out of many, many great qualities, one of the best things about the iPhone/iPod is that you can general pop on headphones, turn off the game’s music, and play to your own soundtrack. Not completely novel, but better supported than on any prior platform.

My favorite music while playing my iPhone game: Dan Deacon, Cut Copy and–more specifically–the Teenagers’ remake of a song by Vampire Weekend. Glasvegas works well too, it turns out.

I [bloody] [heart] Left4Dead

I’ve been playing Left4Dead and I’m totally in love with it.

It’s a ‘game’ in a purer sense than many shooters…it’s a sports-like experience in terms of dynamics and phases of play. The game feels very smart in terms of dramatic pacing via mechanics: Each enemy class represents a different tactical experience, rising and falling in intensity as players move through a solid structure, from safe zone to labyrinth to arena to labyrinth to climax to safe zone. And each mix of enemy classes represents a different tactical experience. The variability in enemy spawning and items feels almost perfect.

It’s a great example of excellent mechanical differentiation. This is best seen with regard to enemy classes (witch, boomer, etc), but it’s all over the place (zombie-attracting pipe-bombs vs wall-of-fire molotov cocktail; zombies can’t open doors but have to batter them down; etc). I’m constantly seeing small, well differentiated mechanics that enhance the game in some way…that can be used tactically by players in different contexts. Enforced co-op mechanics are some of the game’s most interesting features and really matter a lot when a team is trying to survive a big finale battle. The game constantly gives the player clear feedback, with minimal noise. You get messages for goals, for bragging-rights, dynamic events, etc. Some of this is conveyed through character voice lines (even your own), which works great.

But it’s not enough to describe it as a sports-like shooter, because the setting, character archetypes and situations make it more than that too. Rather than feeling abstract (Team 01 vs Team 02), the player cannot help but surf along the edges of the zombie fiction. There’s a kind of media transference that happens because the player has seen so many nihilistic, desperate zombie movies set in the modern world. The game fiction leverages this very well, allowing the story to unfold dynamically as the player simultaneously drives and interprets the situation. That story is generally constrained to something between a zombie movie and a game of sandlot football, but it’s seamless (and brilliant for being so).

I love L4D. Kudos to the team for making one of the best games of the year.