Trip Report: GDC 2012

GDC 2012 was here in San Francisco last week, and I caught the tail end of it on Friday.  It’s the world’s largest game developer’s conference, with a wide variety of contributors from the industry coming together for talks, demos, fun, etc.

I spent most of my time in game career seminars, wandering around the career pavilion, and checking out the expo.

Game Career Seminars

1) gHarmony: Networking Your Way into Acquiring Your True Love Job Match in the Game Development Industry

This talk discussed different forms of networking, starting with fire and forget online resume submissions (worst) to finding opportunities through your friends (best).  Basically, the more high quality exposure you have, the better.  Get out there!

    • LinkedIn – Used heavily in the game industry.  Have a profile, make it count.
    • Professional blog – Detail the projects you’re working on, and the process you’re taking.
    • Alumni Association – Take advantage of any school connections you have.  They last forever, can provide unique contacts, and have a vested interest in your success.
    • Game Development clubs & competitions – These are great opportunities to get involved and gain experience in your area of interest.
    • Modding – Another great way to demonstrate your interest, skills, and gain experience.

2) Perfecting Pitchable Prototypes

This talk was given by a cool guy from Double Fine about their 2 week prototyping sessions.  They break into teams of about 10, with the goal of a playable demo by the end.  A number of their shipped games started this way.  Nice to hear how a top game studio is using prototyping effectively.

    • Stand out, look different – Pick whatever is different about your game idea and embellish it.  Now’s the time to experiment.
    • Don’t build an engine – It’s too time consuming when you’re goal is a playable demo.  There are many great and inexpensive frameworks available to test your proof of concept (Unity, Unreal, etc.).  Leave the low level engine work for a real product cycle after you commit to the full project.

3) Ask the Experts: Professional Programmer’s

This panel had a good cross section of game programmers with different levels of experience and company type.  It was aimed more at students and junior programmers, but still interesting and entertaining.

    • Do Stuff – Emphasis on do.  Many of the panel answers included advice to get out  there and work on things.  If you are interested in a specific area, then create things in that area.  If you don’t know what area is for you, try everything.  This struck me as good advice outside of professional game programming too.
    • Make Games – The most useful thing you can do if you want to become a professional game programmer is to make games.  There was a large focus on learning through doing, and landing jobs through doing.  Do.
    • Finish Some – At least some of them.  If you’ve ever worked in software, you already know the last 20% can kill.  Hiring managers know this, and want to see that you can complete a project, or three.  Anyone can start a project, but can you finish?
    • Hardware – Know your stuff.  A skilled programmer understands the relationship between program and hardware.
    • Algorithms – Know your stuff.  Knuth.
    • Design – Know your stuff.
    • C++? – Yea, it’s used for a lot of game programming, but no one really cares.  You’ll learn a lot of languages throughout your career.  Do NOT ever aspire to be a language X programmer.  Languages are tools of the trade, and you’ll use what makes sense.
    • What are your biggest weaknesses? – This is a stupid interview question.  Go political: Well, I don’t know a whole lot about AI.  Or, answer a slightly different and more useful question: An area I’d like to know more about is AI.

4) Breaking into Game Development: Ask the Pros

This panel had a good cross section of different disciplines (programmer, QA, design, producer).  There weren’t a whole lot of new ideas from the earlier seminars, just more  interesting stories to support the main takeaway: The best thing you can do to break into the game industry is to make games.  This can be on your own, in groups, contributing to open source projects, or working for a game company.

Takeaway: The best way to break into the game industry is to make games in some form.

Historical books to check out:

Career Pavilion

There were 40 odd companies in the career pavilion, so I tried to hit up the locals first and then branch out.  The booths were mostly manned by HR folks, so there was limited opportunity to ask engineers specific questions about the companies.

CSE Software

Peoria, Illinois company that makes simulation and training software.  Not quite in line with my interests, but they did have some cool demos of big yellow earth movers.

Facebook

Hiring for the gaming platform team.  This would be a cool spot to be given the explosion of social gaming.  I’m more into console and PC games.

Ubisoft

Bigger AAA game company with offices around the world, including SF.  Nice guy from HR gave me a run down of the company, culture, opportunities, etc.  The SF office typically has support engineers (somewhere between game developers and clients) and a few AI engineers.  Hopefully that expands in the future.  I really should check out Assassins Creed.

Nintendo

Lots of hiring going on at their Redmond-based US headquarters.  Similar to Ubisoft, they have support software engineers that don’t require specialized game development experience, and positions that do require prior experience in areas like 3D graphics, UI, or networking.  Interestingly, the HR woman suggested experience could be obtained through projects outside of typical employment, which is in sync with the game career seminars.

Havok

Ireland-based game development middleware company.  The friendly HR woman didn’t have many specifics beyond that they were growing and you should craft your resume to the position.

Sony

The Sony booth was a bit underwhelming.  There wasn’t anyone onsite that could answer specific questions, but I did learn they have a streamlined application process.  Basically, you create a online profile and then add interesting positions to your shopping cart.

Blizzard

Now, I know Blizzard is based in Irvine and not exactly local.  But, I’ve been playing their games for years, and as far as I can tell they only ship stellar games.  Naturally, I had to stop by, and it turned out to be my longest career booth visit.  First, there was an engineer on hand to speak with, which was great.  Second, he was a fellow ex-Microsoftie who told me all about the QA infrastructure team he was building.  This was particularly interesting to me, since I’d worked on similar stuff on the Internet Explorer team awhile back.  Nice guy.  Irvine isn’t looking so bad on this rainy morning.

Expo & Random Stuff

Some of the booths were pretty sweet.  Next time I’ll take decent pictures.  Oops.

The youthful male demographic was well covered.

I came across some new HTC Windows Phones in a Microsoft area, which were pretty cool.  But, more importantly they had unreleased versions of Carcassonne and geoDefense Swarm!  Based on my 5 minutes of testing, I’ll skip the Trial and go straight to Buy.

See you next year GDC!

Milling around waiting for the next talk. Expo entrance past the stairs.
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Pretty Nerdy: Woodcutter’s Hut Spreadsheet

I’ve been playing a game recently called Lord of Ultima.  It’s a free-to-play browser-based MMO RTS by EA, which sounds kind of nerdy by itself when you write it out.  Anyway, it’s fun.

A big component of the game is building up cities, which are comprised of different types of buildings.  The buildings are interrelated and modify each other based on their placement, which allows for lots of granular optimization.

I created this spreadsheet to help me figure out what to upgrade, and when.  The part you see above is for a Woodcutter’s Hut, and tells me how long it will take to recoup the cost of upgrading it based on the formula in the bottom left.

Higher level huts take a long freaking time to recoup, but the game takes about 6 months to beat so I guess it’s all relative.  Good thing I made this spreadsheet with the reverse engineered production formula.

It was pretty nerdy.

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eBay Shill Bidding

Last week I bought a used road bike on eBay.  Actually, I bought it twice, paid once, and know a little bit more about shill bidding.  Time to share.

Shill Bidding: You or someone you know bidding on your own auction item.

This raises the price to the detriment of other buyers, and is a violation of eBay rules and federal law (fraud).  But like most rules, they don’t prevent all transgressions.

Auctions are fun.  If you’ve never tried them out, you should.  There is some excitement to be had in the uncertainty leading up to the close.  My bike auction was no different.

Bidding Theory

eBay has automatic bidding.  This means you enter your maximum bid and eBay automatically increments your current bid only high enough to be the highest bidder.  Here’s an explanation.

With limited research, I uncovered two bidding strategies and opted with the lazier approach #1:

  1. Put in your maximum bid early.  This raises the bid price and discourages bidders who might have been interested at a low price from getting involved.
  2. Put in your maximum bid late.  This may keep the price lower, because there isn’t as much time for bidders to slowly inch the price upwards.

Unfortunately, this was before I had considered shill bidding.  #1 is good for shill bidders because it allows them more time to raise the price and then retract a bid.

Bid Retractions

eBay allows you to retract a bid under certain circumstances.  However, the circumstances aren’t checked before retraction, and they don’t block anything.  They probably only aid fraud investigations later.

How does this help the shill bidder?  They can bid high to discover your maximum bid, retract, and then bid right below your max.  Now you’re paying the maximum amount, instead of the minimum.  Lame.

http://pages.ebay.com/help/buy/bid-retract.html#cond

The Search

I was looking for a Cannondale road bike, size 56, no more than about $500, and no older than 10 years.  Difficult to find in person, but eBay has everything:

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=270906777113#ht_10058wt_1396

The Action

Going into the final day of the auction I was the high bidder at $170.  Great, right?  Bike I want, well below cost.  Let’s just hope the final hours of bidding don’t raise it too high.

At 5 hours to close a new bidder(r***0) swoops in with a high bid of $400.  Oh no!  Don’t panic.  Based on past eBay auctions we knew the bike wouldn’t go for $170.

20 minutes to close and my max of $470 is not the winner.

15 minutes to close and my max of $470 is the winner.  Eh, what?  eBay bugged?  No, r***0 has retracted his high bid.  Thanks r***0 for bowing out and letting me have this one!

10 minutes to close and my max of $470 is a loser again.  r***0 is back!  Weird.  Ok, I’m prepared to pay a bit more.  Hmm, my new $520 bid is not a winner.

8 minutes to close, and my $520 is a winner!  r***0 has retracted another bid.  Weird redux.

5 minutes to close, and r***0 is ahead with $530.  Ok, what am I really prepared to pay?  Do I really want to spend any more time looking for another bike with the right specs?  $570 is my final offer.

Auction closes at $550 in my favor.  r***0 final max was $545.

Here’s the bidding history, which doesn’t show bid retractions unfortunately:

http://offer.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewBids&item=270906777113&showauto=true

Bid retractions were a little weird, but I haven’t bid on any eBay auctions in awhile so maybe this is normal.  Knowing a little too much about software, I absent-mindedly brainstorm technical explanations like timing issues between multiple bidders and eBay servers, etc.

Spider Sense

The mind is a funny thing.  Sometimes you just have this feeling like something isn’t quite right, but you’re not immediately sure what it is.

Less than a minute after the auction closed I received an email from the auction owner that the description may have been wrong.  Specifically, the bike was listed as a 2010 model but may in fact be a 2001 model.

Now, I already knew it was not a 2010 model, because I’ve already researched Cannondale bike models and their history.  The only measurements I did care about were the frame size, which presumably was still correct.  However, the value difference between a 2001 and a 2010 model is significant, so this information is valuable to have before the auction ends.

Why am I getting this email immediately after the auction?  Did the owner just come by this information, or not get around to updating the description before auction end?  What the frak dude!

My elaborate explanations of the bid retractions are gone now.  A simpler explanation is available.  Foul play.

Decisions

Should I complete the transaction or back out?

I haven’t bid more than the bike is worth to me.  The owner has good feedback, so I’ll probably receive what is in the pictures.

On the other hand, I am annoyed by the potentially fraudulent behavior and don’t like the idea of supporting it by paying more than the bike was worth on the open market.

I reply to the owner’s mail about the model year and say I’m not longer interested in the auction.  He cancels it, and that’s that.

Epilogue

My bike is back on the market after a week or so of watching eBay and craigslist.  r***0 is back in the fray as the high bidder with a day left.  My new strategy involves bidding right before close for the max I’m willing to pay.

I forget to login before bidding and end up winning  the bike for $510 with 2 seconds to close.  No time for bid retractions this time.

The only interesting element to the second auction is what amounts to an unofficial reserve price equal to r***0′s max bid.  An official reserve price allows the owner to notify bidders that the minimum amount they will sell for has not been reached yet.   Setting an unpublicized reserve price through another account is still shady behavior, but I don’t care at this point.  I saved $40 and didn’t feel like a victim this time.

http://pages.ebay.com/help/sell/reserve.html

The bike arrives quickly, was packed well, and the dents and scratches make it look like it  survived an apocalypse.  The frame is smaller than the stated measurements, but it is still just big enough.  A new set of tires and handlebar grips is all needs.  It’s perfect.

http://www.ebay.com/itm/270914223697?ssPageName=STRK:MEWNX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1439.l2649#ht_10160wt_1396

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Customer Service is Difficult

I received an email from Brummel & Brown this morning that reminded me customer service is difficult to do well.

First, some background.  This company makes a nonfat yogurt “butter” that is twice as healthy as the real deal.  The healthy aspect is nice and all, but the true beauty is it spreads really well.  I wish I had a video to share.  And, it’s readily available in Seattle, but not in San Francisco (so I’ve found so far).  I had found it at a Cala Foods in Nob Hill, which is now closed.

Naturally, I emailed the team asking where I could find it in San Francisco, and within a week I got this great email:

Hello MR MATT LOTT,


Thank you for contacting us regarding our Brummel & Brown .

At the present time, Brummel & Brown is in limited distribution. It has been introduced in certain areas of the country and is currently available in those areas only. Unfortunately, we have no information at this time about the company’s plans for future distribution.

Sincerely,
Your friends at Brummel & Brown

Let’s discuss.

They thank me for contacting them about their product.  That’s pleasant.  And, they exhibit some ownership over the product.  Ok, now we’ve received a friendly reply in a reasonable amount of time.

Next paragraph.  I’m not sure what in limited distribution means exactly, but I’m still hopeful that it has made it to sixth largest metropolitan area in the US.  Great, we won’t lose hope.

And, so.  It is only available in areas where it has been introduced.  Eh, hmm.  Introduced…formally, with a handshake and pleasantries?  Unless I should be watching out for public unveilings and ribbon cuttings, I’m not sure how this is different than limited distribution.  That’s ok, they’re probably just reinforcing that before giving me some real data to work with.

No information about the company’s future distribution, your friends.  Woh!  This conversation has taken an unfortunate turn.  Tell me more about the current limited distribution!  Why are you hiding your product from me?  I want to give you money in a buttery transaction.  Also, what happened to the ownership here.  It was yours, but now it’s “the company’s”?  Oh kay.

Anyway, there is a pretty good chance a computer sent this response based on some keywords in my initial message, rather than a human being with a keyboard and some free time.  That’s fine.  It kind of conflicts with the vibe given off by their contact us page, but whatever.  I’ll keep looking.

Next steps:

  1. Reply to email.  They’ve assigned a case #, after all.
  2. Call their 1-800 #, and see if I can talk to the emailing computer, in person.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue my slow progress of searching every grocery store in San Francisco.  It’s good to maximize your chances of success.  Also, it’s a good way to explore the city.  Dovetail your strategies.

UPDATE [2/25/12]: Search is over, Brummel & Brown spotted in my local Safeway!  Tempting to stockpile, but I’ll resist for now.

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Bloguary Postmortem

It’s February!  We’re done(ish)!

This concludes the blog-for-a-month experiment.  Let’s review.

  • Posts: 17
  • Unique visitors: 55
  • Posts with pictures or video: 16
  • MS Paint drawings: 4

Random conclusions:

  • Story posts are easier
  • Howto posts are harder
  • Writing in the morning is easier
  • Pictures can combat writer’s block
  • Blogging every day is too often (hence, 17 posts rather than 31)
  • Best blogging tunes: mix Korn, Rihanna, Paramore, and Death Cab For Cutie
  • Gets easier with practice (surprise surprise…)

Anyway, this turned out to be a worthwhile experiment.  I recommend you try it.  It’s relatively easy to setup a personal blog these days (Blogger, WordPress), but if you run into problems let me know.

New goal: average one post a week for remaining 2012

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Take a Picture, Kill a Rat

My name is Matt, and I am a packrat.  But I’m working on it.

Partial solution: nostalgia is preserved almost as well with a picture.

I like to keep anything tied to a memory.  Water bottle from random bike race?  That’s a keeper.  Damaged beyond repair backpack you got in middle school?  Let’s keep it forever!  Blue plastic trash can you’ve had longer than some of your siblings?  Eh, ok that too.

The biggest offenders are free t-shirts that remind me of a project or event, and any piece of clothing I wore enough to sprout holes from overuse.  Needless to say, these started to fill more than a single box as time trudged along.

Enter the smartphone.  Now I always have a camera with Internet on my person.  Hence, the epiphany (partial solution) above.

You really only need a camera to execute this. But don’t worry, you’ll have a smartphone too someday if you don’t already. They’re lifechanging, and deserve their own posts.

Now I only keep things with an extremely high nostalgia value (e.g. diplomas, trophies).  The rest get a picture saved in the interwebs, and a new home at the local Goodwill.

Sometimes I wish I’d kept my elementry school alarm clock.  At least I have a picture.

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Fashion Lesson Learned

High school freshman is not many people’s favorite year, and I am no different.  I’ve repressed a few choice memories at this point, but one never fades away.  The sport was baseball, the misstep was fashion.

It hadn’t taken me long to perfect a quick scurry down the hallways between classes, never making eye contact or taking in much detail as I made for point B.  If crimes were committed, the CSI’s had best find a different nark.

It was this head-down speed walk that allowed me to seemingly ignore an upperclassmen heckle one morning as I veered between congregating cliques.  “Hey, pick a side!”  All I can tell you is the brute was crouching over a backpack 10 feet away at my one o’clock.  I gave him a wide berth.

Braves v. Mariners
Why was this so memorable? It was my only conversation with someone from a different grade that year, so that helped.  I didn’t enjoy picking out clothes as a kid because I never had the “cool” stuff, so that helped too.  This memory gets another play now and again when I see clothes for sale, and I think fondly of the helpful vogue hooligan.

I’ve made moderate progress since then, mostly around matching the color of my shoes and belt.  And, I support one team at a time.

Lesson learned.

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eBay Storage

I first heard of the term “ebay storage” over the holidays and it has changed my life, mostly on the philosophical side.  But, a bit on the practical side too.

First, what the heck does this mean?  Why are you buying stuff on eBay just to put it in storage?  No, I overheard it used in the opposite direction!  For example, “I’m putting this roller hockey stick in eBay storage.”  Wait, what?   Ooh, that’s kind of weird, and clever.

At least that was my initial thought.  However, I kept thinking about this off and on over the last month or so, and finally began to understand it’s brilliance.  Things that are not unique and do not increase in value faster than a mutual fund can be put in eBay storage.

eBay Storage: Selling stuff on eBay you don’t currently use, and buying the equivalent back when you need it.

Time for a convincing example.  I have an extra Kinect sitting in my closet.  I do not need it now or in the near future, because I only have one Xbox to plug Kinects into.  I can sell it for $100 on eBay.  Now I have $100 to plug into Star Wars, or a Wilco concert.  Or realistically, groceries.

If I do need that Kinect later, you can guess where I’ll find one.  That’s right, eBay.  And, it will probably be cheaper.  Or, there will be a newer version, making my old one worth less than $100.  But, I’ll probably never need another one.  Everyone wins with eBay storage.

So what’s the philosophical shift?  When I’m storing something now I have a new question to ask myself:  How often do I use this and am I attached to this specific one?  If I don’t use it often and I am not attached to it, it goes into eBay storage!

I’m a minor hoarder.  I’d rather put things in a labeled box than get rid of them.  You never know when you’ll need half a dozen extra computer mice.  Also, I hate disposing of books.  I was on track to be buried with my own little library of accumulated books, some of them even read by me.  However, eBay storage has saved me from a life of increasingly heavy residence changes.  Now I can pack light(er) for the next move.

On the book front, I’ve made two changes this January.  First, I sold all my law school textbooks from last semester on Amazon.  Amazon storage.  I will always be able to get equivalent books back, and that won’t be necessary anytime soon.  Second, I got a library card and have been using it.  I am no longer attached to a specific copy.  Instead, I am keeping track of my books on Shelfari.  Virtual bookshelf ftw!

The next time you’re putting something away, don’t forget the eBay storage option.  Now, is there anything in eBay storage I need retrieve…

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Seattle Snow Driving

During my seven year tenure in Seattle I often heard from transplants how bad natives were at driving in the snow.  While likely true at a macro level, the tone of this criticism never sat right with me.

 

First of all, when it comes to snow I will put my money on the Michigan driver over the Seattle driver every time.  Why?  Opportunity.  Average snowfall in Michigan can be measured in feet and months, and in Seattle it can fittingly be measured as a binary snow/nosnow.  I.e. did a couple inches of snow accumulate for about day this winter, or not.  Now, I’ve never lived in a snowy place, but I’m guessing like most things practice makes perfect.

However, I don’t buy the implication that experienced snow drivers will succeed where inexperienced snow drivers will fail, in Seattle.  It’s too frickin hilly!  No one can drive around on the steep hills when they’re covered in snow.  Basic physics is still in play.

I suspect the real difference is risk assessment.  An experienced snow driver knows better than to drive down steep snowy hills without sufficient traction.  And to maintain an even speed and not braking when driving up a slippery incline, while we’re at it…  Yikes!

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Seattle looks fabulous in white, and I miss walking around town after the rare dusting.

And, every snow day brings us a fresh set of entertaining videos to peruse.  This one is my favorite from this year because it’s a block from where I used to live, and has what I can only describe as ice-skating music (Nutcracker?).

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Wedding Thank-yous Done!

More days than not I have a TODO list written down somewhere.  Notebooks and whiteboards being the most popular vehicles.  For example, here’s today’s list, and not any less legible than usual.

Today was a big day in TODO lists, because “thank yous” will not be there tomorrow.  It has been there almost every day since I got married in May ’11, but no more!  I polished off the last three today and can finally put away the box of random stationery stuff that has been lingering around the house for many months now.

I  know, great right?  Now, just to put things in perspective I should note there were approximately 150 thank-yous to write and send, of which I was responsible for 20 or so.  20 of 150 = 13% ownership.  Fine.  Next time I get married, I’ll shoot for a new PR.

Ok, ok.  But how bad is the delay really?  It’s true, I suspect some people have since moved addresses, but USPS forwards for at least 12 months, if I’m reading their confusing site correctly.  So, logistically I’m in the clear.

Who cares about logistics!  What about etiquette?  We’ll look at the first 3 Bing results and Emily Post.  That’s right, I use Bing instead of Google.  I never switched back after beta-testing Bing, and I haven’t noticed any difference in their effectiveness.   W’oh!  Hey there big guy, no time for a hollow search engine tirade.  Let’s put that in it’s own post where it can be rightly ignored as being soo 2009.

So, anyway, here is the research.

Bing #1 – eHow, your first stop for concise accuracy:

  • bridal shower: 1-2 weeks
  • gifts before wedding: 2-5 days (!?)
  • day of: 2-4 weeks
  • after: not covered by article, but probably same as day of.

Bing #2 – OurMarriage.com:

  • bridal shower: 10 days
  • gifts before wedding: immediately
  • on or after wedding: within 2 weeks of honeymoon end

Bing #3 – HubPages.com:

  • before wedding: immediately
  • on or after: within 3 months

EmilyPost.com:

  • all gifts: within 3 months

Summary:

  • all my thanks-yous: extremely late.  “who are these people?” late.  “when did they get married again?” late.  “i don’t remember sending them anything” late.

Anyway, they were fun to work on, and hopefully the handwritten notes garner a few smiles.  If they can decipher the words that is.  Thank god these blog posts are typed instead of scrawled in my chicken scratch handwriting.

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