Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Initial thoughts about my first GDC

So here I am, post-GDC, from my point-of-view (I was only there for two days), reflecting on what I thought of my first ever trip there. I made a deliberate decision to only spend two days there, to attend the indie talks, meet some people, and then combine the trip with a short holiday, so I’m in a hotel room typing this up. If GDC has erupted into major scandal, I have no idea, so imagine this was written yesterday :D

First up, I met some really cool people at GDC. Finally met Ichiro, Andy and Keith, and many other people whose names I know well but have never seen in real life. Dave Gilbert, James C Smith, Russel, too many to mention frankly. That side of things was really cool. I also attended quite a few talks, some of which were awesome, some of which were rambling incoherent waffle, but on the whole the good outweighed the bad.
Do I think attending GDC was worth it? For me, I’d say yes, mostly on a personal and inspirational note. Was it worth it in terms of making a business case for me going? Maybe.

To answer the hypothetical question ‘is it worth attending GDC’ question, takes a lot of thought. On the the one hand, you hear some great talks and meet a lot of people, on the other hand, those talks get posted online, and everyone has email and skype anyway. On balance, I’d say the decision to go is based on a combination of money and personality.

Attending GDC for me is relatively expensive. It involves a return transatlantic plane trip, and a long UK car journey, airport parking, a hotel in san francisco and general expenses, plus obviously the GDC ticket. How much you can cut that cost down (easy if you live in the US), and how much cash you have to spend on this sort of thing is a huge factor. Is it worth more to you than the same spend on middleware licenses, advertising placements or contracted art/music? Maybe, maybe not.
The second factor is personality. GDC seems to be perfect for those charismatic young indies brimming with american confidence and the ability to go up to strangers, shake hands and say ‘I’m joe and this is my game!’. That is not me. I am sometimes very loud and shouty and full of enthusiasm in groups of people. I am sometimes quiet, shy and very serious, even miserable. I don’t get to choose how those times line up. I wouldn’t bet my career on winning people over with my charm on some fixed date.
A lot of indies talk very confidently about how advertising for indies is useless, and the way to get your name out there is to attend PAX and GDC and E3 and lots of shows I don’t even know, and meet people and go to parties. Most of the time you hear people talk about the benefits of shows is when they are talking about it at shows. In other words, this is a very self-selecting group. It’s only half of the story.
I know indies that have earned over a million dollars and never met another indie developer. These people exist, but you won’t (by definition) hear them talk at shows.
So in conclusion… GDC is great as a self promotion and networking tool for a certain personality type. If that’s you, then cool. But don’t panic if you are an introvert, and all this shaking hands sounds awful. There is another side to the coin, and you can do well without becoming a ‘face’ on the indie circuit. Will I go next year? I think maybe I will. I’m not sure. As usual, my ever-so-helpful answer is ‘it depends’.

Going to GDC for the first time.

Yeah I know…Everyone and their cats has been to GDC before, but I haven’t, partly due to distance, and partly because I prefer not to fly (for eco, not fear reasons), but it’s getting a bit ridiculous to not go any more.
The thing is I’m not really going for any specific promotional purpose this time. Democracy 3 is coming along nicely, but it’s not the sort of game that is easily shown off on a noisy show floor to a journalist who is distracted by booth babes and exploding airplanes. That isn’t to say I’ll never promote games of mine at shows, but as I’ve not been to GDC before, this is more of a social/checking it out trip than a promotional one.
There are a whole bunch of indies that I chat to online that I’ve never met, some of them might read this! and it will be cool to bump into some of them. I’m going to one big indie meetup thing on Monday night, and a meal on Tuesday night, and apart from that I’ll probably be dithering around on Monday/Tuesday wearing a gratuitous space battles t-shirt and trying to look like I fit in :D. If you see someone in a GSB t-shirt, you can probably assume it’s me.
I’m only going to be at the conference for Monday/Tuesday, I’m then heading off for five days of sightseeing somewhere with more trees and bears and less traffic. I think I’ll get the vibe of GDC in two days.
In the old days, indies would be clamoring for meetings with publishers, but in 95% of cases, they are now more trouble than they are worth. However if anyone has a good reason they want to meet up with me regarding press/pr or stuff like that, then I’ll be in San Francisco for two days, so best to contact me now if you are around.
I might even check my email daily while I’m there!

Democracy 3 and rendering crisp text in directx

Democracy 3 is a text heavy game. Text and stats, and graphs. So it’s pretty important it is all legible. I’ve spent the best part of two days monkeying around with my text rendering code, which is part of my library (all written by yours truly), trying to get better results. My aim is obviously easy readability. here is some text from the current (Democracy 2) game: (excuse the bitmap format but obviously I don’t want to add artifacts here…)


And here is the current implementation in Democracy 3 (different color scheme too).


I think the second example is marginally better, but frankly that’s just a better color scheme and bigger text. the actual *quality* of the text is certainly nothing special. What I want, clearly is something as good as the text I see windows drawing in webpages and text documents outside of games. Unfortunately, that isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Most LCD monitors are set up to use cleartype, information on wikipedia. This is a cunning system that effectively increases the screen resolution by using colored ‘sub-pixels’, You can see the effect by taking a screen grab of this page (for example) and then zooming in really close. You will notice this text isn’t really black, or indeed one color. Some sort of cool display/monitor-driver cleverness handles this when it displays text. The trouble is, you can’t just ‘enable’ that for a game drawn the way I do things, where each character is effectively a tiny sprite. It just can’t be done.

Now there ARE some clever solutions to get amazing text, I know valve have some clever system, but this all involves implementation of a bunch of third party code and shaders. That isn’t a big deal *as such*, but it means that I have to cannibalize my extensive current GUI library and font loading and text-wrapping/aligning/processing stuff to work with all new systems. This would be a ton of work, and increase the spaghettiness of my library, something I am keen not to do.

I have tried just doubling my bitmap font size and using mip-maps to scale it down, but if anything that looks worse, so I’m trying to keep to my current system, which uses a 1:1 pixel to texel mapping with point filters engaged to get exactly what I see in my font bitmap file.I have a horrible feeling that swapping to black text on white screens is just going to look far worse than white text on black, at least from a  text-crispness POV.

There is of course, also the issue of opportunity cost. Is more time spent on this a good idea when I could spend that time elsewhere in the GUI, or for that matter, the simulation or game balance. Democracy 2 never earned me anyone bemoaning it’s crappy text, maybe the new text is good enough? Developers – What system do you use for text-rendering in games?

edit: maybe this black version looks better?