Making My Virtual Dream

Posted on Monday, August, 18th, 2014 at 9:31 pm   (No comments)

[Originally posted at]


My Virtual Dream in action at Nuit Blanche

Dreamers dreaming


My Virtual Dream at Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2013 will take place inside a spectacular 60-ft dome, awash with projected animations, powered directly by the participants’ brainwaves connected to The Virtual Brain.


Starting at 6:52 p.m. on October 5, groups of 20 participants at a time will enter the “Dreamery” – an intimate stage in the centre of the dome. The first half of each session is called “The Wake Cycle,” during which participants will learn to control and synchronize their brain waves by playing a cerebral video game. Using only their own powers of concentration and relaxation, participants will directly control the images and sounds projected on the dome, competing with other players to create spectacular fireworks.


To learn more about the virtual game’s creation, we spoke to Elliot Pinkus, a Game Designer at Uken Games and one of the central designers of the game used in My Virtual Dream.


How would you describe the creative process that went into the game’s production?


The first challenge was the coming up with an overall concept. Working with members of the MVD team and two fellow designers from Uken Games, we started with the goals and constraints. For our goals, we wanted a game that in a quick play session would be visually engaging, easy to learn, and would give the players clear feedback on how the game responded to their brain activity. We went through a series of brainstorms about what would be a good fit and I latched on to the idea of a fireworks show. The colored explosions of fireworks would make for widely appealing visuals. Someone just walking by the exhibit could become intrigued seeing the bright flashes of light.


From that clear and exciting visual concept, I considered our primary constraint: how the player can purposely alter their brain activity. The clearest translation of how we’re measuring brain activity is as two “buttons” the player can press, each tied to different brainwaves: “Concentrate” and “Relax.” My jumping off point was the idea of a player concentrating to build up glowing energy that could then be launched as a firework. That core experience could be easily communicated and visually satisfying. The core game development team (Edith Chow, Julian Spillane, and myself) expanded and polished up the concept into what everyone will see at Scotiabank Nuit Blanche.


How do the games work?


The game is a fireworks display performed by the players using only their minds. The core goal of constructing a firework is in two phases: Gather and Compress. First, players must relax their minds to raise their alpha waves, which gathers the energy that will go into their firework. The goal is to gather as much energy as possible before a timer expires. Next, players concentrate as hard as they can, raising gamma waves, to compress that energy and charge up the firework for its release.


Once the Gather and Compress phases are complete, the player’s firework launches into the air in a bright glowing display that varies based on their performance. The more they have gathered, the larger the firework’s explosion will be. The more they have compressed, the brighter the firework’s particles will be. Five players can play together on one screen, progressing from solo fireworks (where players compete to make the best fireworks) to group fireworks where all the players contribute to a single impressive launch.


Were there any special challenges in creating the games for My Virtual Dream?


The biggest challenge was dealing with such a foreign method of input. It’s easy to instruct a player to press a button, but how do you teach “relax in such a way that your alpha waves pass a threshold?” Everyone’s brain waves are slightly different and what works for one person may not work for others. It’s been interesting to see how players learn to “Concentrate” in just the right way. Some players have success with counting numbers or doing math, while others are more visually-oriented and need to imagine the firework actually compressing. For myself, neither of these methods are successful and instead I need to un-focus visually while letting my mind run free. We went through many subtle iterations of the game to give meaningful feedback and reward success over a very short play session.


Do you see a future role for the game program outside of Nuit Blanche?


There’s absolutely a role for the game beyond Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. There are two areas of the game that we’re learning from: the collected data about brain activity, and experiential feedback about how players interact in this novel way. Expanding the game would give us greater insight of how various people’s brains react to different purposeful input. As always in scientific research, more data leads to better understanding. On the interaction side, there are more and more experimental controllers that rely on only the brain for input. We have already learned from the game’s development process what techniques work and what techniques don’t. As we continue to adapt the game, we will find even better ways to let players consciously control what’s happening on screen. Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology is poised toadvance usability dramatically in the future.


(Photo at top via

Tips for Designer Applications & Interviews

Posted on Monday, February, 18th, 2013 at 4:22 pm   (No comments)

How many skilled designers have their applications overlooked because they’re not communicating their abilities?


Recently I had the opportunity to run the interview process as Uken Games expanded its “Design Department” from just myself to a 3-person team. After plenty of experience as an applicant, being on the opposite side of the process was quite the perspective change. After talking to many prospective designers, I noticed a few common mistakes popping up time and time again.


Nothing here is absolute or a deal breaker. There are always many factors involved, like who is receiving your application and the degree to which they adhere to a formal rubric. I tend to look at applicants more holistically. It’s a gestalt impression of their skills, ambition, willingness to learn, ability to clearly communicate, and more. Within that impession there are certainly ways to make yourself stand out, both positively and negatively.


1) Make sure you’re applying for the right job.

This applies to everything from your cover letter, to your resume, to how you present yourself in interviews. In most cases there is a job description. Read it carefully and address the points mentioned. If a studio has thus far focused on text-based mobile games, don’t only talk about your experience making FPS maps in Unreal. If that is your primary experience, then try to frame it in the right way. How can you apply those experiences to the work you’d be doing? Maybe your designing levels taught you how to analyze player behavior and create great experiences.


2) Write a solid cover letter.

There will be hiring managers and interviewers that could not care less, but for me it’s a significant factor. An engaging letter may convince me to move forward on a lacking resume. I want to know that you can communicate, that you have a personality, that you can express why you want to be a game designer. That last piece is key and I’ll come back to it below. Give context to your resume, don’t repeat it. You don’t need to be effusive and hyperbolic about your abilities, and don’t tell your whole life story (yes, we’ve all been playing games since we were kids, got it). Focus on why you want this job, and why you’re a good fit.


3a) I DON’T care how many GDD’s you’ve written or how many pages they were.

In fact, numerical answers for those are a turn-off. What do you consider a GDD? Is it a 2-page proposal or an 80-page bible? If you’ve written 30 game design documents but made one game, I have to wonder if those other documents were not very good. And giving a page count seems to imply that more pages is better, which is absolutely not true and could be the subject of a whole other post. For now, go look up Stone Librande’s presentation about One-Page Design Docs.


3b) DO mention that you have experience writing documentation, but tie it into the development process.

Was it a proposal or specifically defining implementation? Was it prescriptive (prepared ahead of time as instructions) or descriptive (clarifying and tracking how things function as development progresses)? Were you constantly updating it during development? Who used the document?


4a) Show passion.

This is incredibly important, especially during an interview. I want to hear that you’re passionate about the job. And I don’t mean suck up to the company you’re applying for. Acting like who you’re applying to is the Greatest Company In The World only gets you so far. What’s more important is being passionate about the JOB. You’re not applying to be the #1 fan, you’re applying to do great work.


4b) Express why you’re passionate about being a Game Designer.

Now the important thing is not just why you’re passionate about GAMES (you should be, but that’s not exactly uncommon.) Why are you passionate about the role of DESIGNER? Tell me why you loooove to design, and don’t just focus on the end result of releasing a game. What about design really gets you going?  Do you like balancing economies? Devising mechanics? Polishing levels? Studying player behavior? Convince me that you want to do the work. Being a game designer is the best job in the world, but it’s not all fun and games (well, it is games, but you know what I mean).


5) Be able to describe what it is you do as a game designer.

Impress me with insight into your thought process while designing. Talk about challenges and solutions you’ve come across while designing. Make sure to focus on what YOU did as a designer. This should involve talking about failures. If all your designs are perfect on the first pass, you’re doing it wrong. Tell my why your designs had to change and how you figured out the best solution.


6) Be familiar not just with the studio, but the space they operate in.

In our case, many of Uken’s games have been social role-playing games for Facebook and mobile phones. I don’t expect everyone to be an expert in the area (hell, I sure wasn’t when I started), but don’t be a fish out of water. Know a few competitors. For mobile development, the easiest way is to look at some of the games on the top grossing charts (not just top downloaded). That will show you what has been proven to work in the space.


Mass Effect 3: The Journey, The Destination, and Amateur Philosophy

Posted on Saturday, July, 21st, 2012 at 2:02 pm   (No comments)

[Heavy Spoiler Warning for ME3. Minor Spoilers for Angel & Firefly]


The Journey


“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.”


This realization in Angel’s second season can be seen as a mission statement of sorts for the entire series. When confronted by the prospect of never being able to truly defeat evil in all its forms, Angel has an epiphany (Hey, what a coincidence the episode is titled Epiphany). Fighting evil, being “good”, is not about truly winning. It’s not about the rewards at the end, it’s about the actions taken everyday. One does good, not because they expect a reward, but because they can. Because being good is an end in itself.


In contrast to an “Ends justify the means” philosophy, Buffy, Angel, and Firefly continuously reinforce the idea that the ends are irrelevant. Rewards may not exist, but the heroes still do what is right. In Serenity prior to a likely suicide mission, the usually amoral Jayne recalls the advice: “If you can’t do something smart, do something right.” For the first time, he’s clearly unconcerned with how much money he will earn at the end of the day.


Okay, now “What the hell does this have to do with Mass Effect 3?” I hear you ask, like a Kotaku commenter cleverly pointing out an article that doesn’t discuss video games. Two frequent criticisms of ME3’s ending have been its lack of resolution and lack of “choice.” I’m not going to tackle the Catalyst’s Deus Ex Machina or accusations of weak writing (some valid criticisms, but besides the point). What intrigued me is how foreign elements of the aforementioned criticisms seemed. I don’t want to imply other interpretations are “wrong” or complaints are unjustified. But I’d like to explain what the ending was like FOR ME and why certain criticisms have me stumped.


One complaint was that earlier actions and choices were rendered meaningless due to the ending. “It doesn’t matter if you cured the genophage because the ending destroyed the Relays sending society into chaos, or even just because you never saw the end results in an ending montage. The ending does not change based on the genophage, or the Rachni, or the many other morally challenging crossroads faced throughout 3 games. The only explicit effect is a small boost to your readiness reading, and even that is left vague.


Let’s give a real-world-ish example. A stranger is choking and you give them the heimlich, saving their life then next week that stranger has a fatal heart attack. Does that render what you did for them meaningless? Tragic, sure, but had you been able to see the future, would you have decided not to save them because the “ending” would be the same? Kate Cox wrote “to argue that Shepard’s choices cease to matter, to argue that the player’s input ceases to matter, seems to miss the point not just of the game but of existence itself” (via Kotaku).


The Destination


Others have lamented a lack of closure in ME3. My own closure came during the pre-final-battle sequence. I walked around the staging area on Earth, saying goodbye to every one of my allies. I saw Wrex give a proud speech to his troops. I had a tender moment with Liara (<3 u foreva!). I had a last laugh with Garrus. I was going on a suicide mission, these are my friends, this is what happened, my actions and choices have created these moments.


But does the lack of explicit resolution render your actions meaningless? At least for me, Mordin’s sacrifice was an “ending” in itself. And damn if I didn’t tear up as he sang to himself in the final moments. That story concluded for me. I did the right thing (given how I roleplayed Shepard as a Paragon with a hot temper).  I didn’t cure the genophage because I expected a reward, I did it because it was right. And it HAPPENED.


I suppose much of this came from my expectations. Never did I anticipate a glorious Star Wars Special Edition interplanetary dance party or even a Classic Edition Ewok bonfire (Yub Nub). As Shepard, I was trying to prevent a 100,000+ year cycle of destruction. There will be consequences. Going back to Whedon, it’s true that little of what Shepard did “mattered”, in the sense of changing the final result (more or less so depending on which ending choice was made). But everything mattered TO ME. I experienced Mordin’s death. i experienced praying with Thane. No end compensation was needed to validate these moments.


Amateur Philosophy


Alright, I’m going to wade even deeper into some religious and philosophical issues of which I am VASTLY under-qualified to definitively discuss. And I’ll put the extra disclaimer up front that I’m oversimplifying these religious issues, but the broad strokes are interesting.


At various points in history (like the Protestant Reformation), there has been disagreement over what it took to gain entrance to heaven and how much of of it was a nearly numerical “score”. If you donated enough money to the church, could that be sufficient “positive points” to make up for other negatives? I’m intrigued by socio-religious embedded philosophies that still portray Heaven as not just a goal, but the only goal that “matters”. Where all actions in life are done in order to entrance. In a sense, there’s a Final Score.


Many times I’ve heard the argument that without this “heaven score”, why would we have any motivation to be good? I’ve heard some Humanist thinkers present an alternative. In Boston, I saw many subway posters promoting the book “Good Without God”. Joss Whedon gave a talk to the Harvard Humanist Society where he discussed how morality exists regardless of a deity (okay, his words were “sky bully”). Certain schools of Jewish thought are similar in their outlook though not the theological underpinning. The afterlife is vastly downplayed; The Old Testament barely mentions an afterlife aside from the void of “Sheol” where everyone ends up. One should be good because God says we should be, and that’s it. There’s no explicit reward or punishment with heaven or hell. It makes me wonder if there are any cultural trends in the reaction to ME3. If one’s personal religious philosophy emphasizes a final judgment and reward, are they more likely to feel ME3’s ending was incomplete? Of course I’m not suggesting that this is a simple 1-to-1 relationship, and I’m not suggesting one outlook is better than the other. I clearly have my own philosophical take, but I’m absolutely not suggesting it is “right” for everyone.


Moving away from religion (as well as potential for my foot to keep getting further into my mouth), it is interesting that some critics of ME3’s “lack of choice” in fact seem to be asking for less choice at the end. At the end end, players can select 3 very different options. Yes, the CINEMATICS are nearly identical (partially solved by the just-released extended endings). But the offscreen implications for the fictional universe are drastically different. Controlling the Reapers or destroying all artificial intelligences have serious ramifications. Do we really need an Animal House style “Here is what happens 10 years down the road?” Isn’t asking for past decisions to have more impact implying that there should be less choice at the end? But isn’t it an interesting moral issue that all the way at the end you still have to make that choice? You can change your mind. After the 3 games, you’re presented with the possibility that maybe you were wrong. Maybe the Illusive Man was right, or maybe AI truly isn’t worth saving. Nothing you did matters, so all that matters is what you do. Now. Today.

My Gaming Zine

Posted on Sunday, June, 10th, 2012 at 12:15 pm   (No comments)

Last weekend I was back at my parents’ house in Chicago and discovered something crazy on my bookshelf. For an assignment in 8th grade English class, I wrote a gaming magazine. First of all, I’m impressed at 14-year-old-me’s writing. But I’m also disturbed at how much I apparently liked playing with WordArt. Gradiants! Woo!

Features include:

  • Review of Unreal Tournament
  • The History of First Person Shooters
  • Preview of Diablo 2
  • A quick look at the state of MMORPGs

View PDF: PC Games ‘R Us

Confessions of an Impatient Cheater

Posted on Wednesday, November, 30th, 2011 at 9:22 pm   (No comments)

[Originally posted at ]
I have a confession. I never beat The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past without infinite magic. I used infinite lives to finish Hyperzone, Thunder Spirits, or any of the other SNES scrolling shooters that I loved. My first full play-through of Final Fantasy 6 was made a little easier by starting the game with four of the most powerful weapons and accessories. Game Genie made it all possible. Did I miss out on some of the fun by cheating my way through challenges?


“Some of the puzzles will be hard. But when you manage to solve those hard puzzles, you will feel very good about it. The game will feel very rewarding. Don’t rob yourself of that feeling by reading a walkthrough! Please do not use a walkthrough.” That bit of advice is from Jonathan Blow’s official Braid “walkthrough.” He even encourages the player by confirming that “All the puzzles can be solved. Some of them might take an hour or two, but you will get it. If you try. And you will feel cool and smart.” Of course, this is assuming that the cool and smart feeling you get as a reward outweighs the two frustrating hours you spent staring at a single-screen puzzle. For some players I’m sure it is a sufficient reward. I’d compare the feeling to that of players spending hours memorizing enemy patterns in Ikaruga to get a high score or making a record speed run of Super Metroid. This hard fun results in an emotion called fiero.



The key distinction between a high score or speed run and finishing Braid is that mastery is a choice. The player chooses how much time they want to devote to perfecting their play, but will already have experienced all of the game’s content. Braid requires 100% mastery just to progress to the ending. If the player wants to see the mind-blowing twist at the end, they are supposed to just tough it out.


But what if the player isn’t as affected by fiero, if it isn’t their personal “ultimate Game Emotion”? What if their biggest emotional reward is curiosity or relaxation or excitement? That player wonders what happens in Tim’s quest for his princess, wants to see what the next puzzle’s twist on time manipulation is, or finds the art direction fascinating. Wouldn’t their net enjoyment of the game be increased if they used a walkthrough to avoid some of the frustration? Wouldn’t it be nice if they could press a button and have the avatar automatically progress through the next puzzle so the player could still see the solution? That’s what a feature in New Super Mario Bros Wii can do, and it has been faced with very mixed reactions.


A major element of the argument against such an automated walkthrough is that it promotes accessibility over engagement. Leigh Alexander wrote “History has also never disproven… the principle that any medium and any message degrades the wider an audience it must reach. Art was never served by generalization, nor language by addressing all denominators. Entertainment for the masses ultimately becomes empty.” Well now, dissecting that argument can fill a blog post in itself. But in the case of Braid, the casual player won’t be able to experience some of the most artistically challenging content. It’s not that the art is difficult to interpret; the art is in fact hidden behind a barrier. Anyone can look at a painting and see every detail. They can read every word of a novel or watch every second of a movie. Understanding or appreciating the art is a different matter. Imagine if halfway through a novel you had to take an SAT-style verbal skills test to unlock the second half.


The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past


What Game Genie allowed me to do was complete the game. I was playing SNES while in elementary school and didn’t have the skills or patience to memorize attack patterns, but I really wanted to see what happened in the next level. In some cases, I was able to play around more freely with the mechanics when aided by cheat codes. For instance in Link to the Past, magic is limited such that some of the more powerful items can only be used sparingly. I remember using infinite magic to turn the Cane of Somaria into my primary weapon since creating a magic block that explodes in four directions was a fun twist on combat.


One of the reasons I feel the quality of my experience playing games with Game Genie was preserved is that the game didn’t do everything for me. In Zelda I still had to solve puzzles (though I did use a strategy guide occasionally). Even in shooters where I had infinite lives, I would try to kill as many enemies as possible and would be disappointed when I died. I determined my own level of challenge by choosing not only what cheat codes to use, but how to approach my play experience. The automated walkthrough still allows a player to be challenged by puzzles; it is a choice whether or not to use the feature. If a player doesn’t want to their experience to be “spoiled,” then they could just not use the walkthrough. Or they should only use the walkthrough on puzzles that have them completely stumped. It’s only different from including an easy mode if you think the challenge of the gameplay trumps the desire of a less skilled (or less patient) player to continue forwards.

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