On meeting the CEO of EA and the creator of Love

I’ve had a pretty mixed experience with the classes at USC but the wide range of notable folks who pass through in a given week makes up for a lot. This past week more so than most.

As part of an event celebrating Tracy Fullerton being awarded an endowed chair I was asked to setup a public demo of The Unfinished Swan. The first player? John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts.

He seemed really into it. We had a chance to talk for several minutes and he had some very interesting suggestions. Of course this is the same man who wanted Mirror’s Edge to switch to a third-person perspective, though he’s big enough to admit that might not have been a good idea in hindsight.

This week I also had a chance to meet Eskil Steenberg, who stopped by to demo his game Love. It’s an MMO being developed by a single man (Eskil Steenberg). It’s astonishingly beautiful as you can see from the screenshots and teaser video.

Eskil Steenberg and me (I'm the nerd on the left)

Since I have a tendency to work in isolation myself I can totally appreciate Eskil’s one-man-band approach to game development. Although I’m personally trying to force myself to work more collaboratively, the principles of working on an ambitious game in a small team are pretty similar to working at it alone. In order of importance, I think it comes down to: (a) knowing what to cut, (b) knowing the tools, and (c) knowing when the existing tools aren’t good enough and you’ve got to roll your own. Eskil is even more obsessed with tools than I am. A lot more.

For starters he wrote his own 3d modeler, Loq airou. And it’s gorgeous. The application starts up with two soft blue point lights gently rotating around each other in a black void. For comparison here it is next to the ghastly startup screen for Maya, the industry standard 3d modeler:

It’s impossible for me to be objective anymore about Maya’s interface. I’ve spent hundreds of hours using it so it’s become more-or-less intuitive for me now. After 5 minutes of Loq airou I’m still completely baffled by it. As far as I can tell there’s no keyboard input — everything is driven by a sequence of mouse clicks and drags that seem cryptic to me but no doubt make perfect sense to Eskil. To be fair, my first experience with Maya was somewhat similar.

And even though I can’t say how much usability was sacrificed for its elegance, Loq airou does have some wonderful touches. Like when you delete a line and it bursts into a zillion particles that scatter across the screen. Or when you click a node and there’s a dazzling flash as if you’d fired some sort of, I don’t know, tachyon cannon or something. For a 3d modeler it feels quite game-like, in a nice way. It reminds me of a developer (maybe Kyle Gabler) who said games should be as “squishy” as possible, meaning that every input from the player should produce some gigantic and pleasing output, even if semantically it’s just a banal acknowledgment that a button’s been clicked on.

Jonathan Mak gave a fantastic talk on visual outputs at GDC last year. I can’t find any video from his talk, just text and audio, but the gist is that even bare bones prototypes benefit from a bit of polish. As I remember it, Jonathan had a plain circle jumping and then a (much more interesting) circle with a beanie hat on which added secondary animation.

Anyway, Eskil and I had a great chat about tools and indie game development. Which of course included a discussion of Introversion’s fantastic procedural city generation work. We’re both in agreement that good tools should help you iterate quickly on problems. No surprises there. And then Eskil mentioned that Love is written entirely in C. Which seems a little crazy to me.

Because conventional wisdom has it that C is the least malleable mainstream language out there. Even people who grumble about the quirks of C++ will toss in a “but at least it’s not C.” But what do I know, I spend most of my time way off in managed-code land. I guess the fastest tool is whatever works for you.

And judging from the current state of Love, whatever Eskil’s doing seems to be working just fine.

Although I couldn’t help noticing one significant ommission in the current build: there’s no sound. No music, no sound effects, nothing. And this is a game that’s been in development for around two years now, though Eskil said he plans on adding sound soon. Clearly he’s a very visually-focused guy — and he’s got the screenshots to prove it.

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