April 12, 2004

Electronic Writing Jam

by Andrew Stern · , 12:26 pm

GDC has inspired one lengthy discussion on GTxA so far, perhaps we can get another one going. As I mentioned earlier, the presentation of this year’s Indie Game Jam was a highlight of the conference for me and others (Robin’s writeup, more 1 2 3 4). I love the idea of a group of experienced practitioners getting together in a single location for a few days (pics 1 2 3 4), set loose with a shared, novel, expressive development platform, to quickly jam out an array of little interactive works, ending with an group exhibition shortly thereafter.

This got some of us thinking about doing our own version of a Game Jam. I recall Michael was immediately thinking about the idea of doing a similar event at his new Experimental Game Lab.

Wandering around SOMA a few hours before I flew home to Boston, Noah and I had a bit of time to think about the concept of a Jam. We thought, what would a Jam of electronic writers look like?

Following the model of the Indie Game Jam (IGJ), there could potentially be a series of Jams in which the authoring platform changes each year. The chosen platform for a Jam obviously greatly influences the nature of the works created in it. IGJ Year 0‘s platform was “100,000 guys”; Year 1 was “Shadow Garden”; this year was “2D physics”. What could be a novel, expressive platform for a Jam of electronic writers?

Of course what immediately came to mind was the Facade platform. Now, the full platform for creating story beats, character behaviors, natural language rules, character and object models and animations is big and cumbersome — way too large for use by newcomers in a short workshop. But if we took the time upfront to fashion a subset of the full platform, which would include an existing library of primitive bodies and basic behaviors (walking, speaking with text balloons, gesturing, emoting), a basic set of NLU rules (for general understanding of agreement, disagreement, refer-to topic, praise, criticize, flirt, etc.), a small contained 3D world (a room with interesting props), and some example code of how to create a new character with a collection of simple but interesting behavior and dialog — what sort of Jam could that be?

Imagine a Character Jam, where a group of electronic writers got together for a few days, each authoring their own simple (shallow), reactive, language-capable animated character, designed to be set loose to freely interact with all the other characters and a single human player character.

To give this a chance to be at all cohesive, upfront we’d probably want to decide on a scenario that supports a collection of disparate characters forced to interact, such as a group of estranged family members reuniting at a funeral, or a set of strangers trapped in an elevator, or a hospital waiting room. Perhaps the scenario would have two or three plot points, such as “the elevator starts moving again then stops”, or “the doctor comes in to tell a character their loved one has died”.

We’d have to come up with a common set of behaviors and reactions all characters must have, such as the ability to answer common questions, to respond to a common set of basic topics, to give and receive provocations, criticisms, flirtations, etc., to react to the common plot points, and so on. We’d have a common framework for how characters interact, dialog with one another and share the stage — e.g., only one character can be speaking at a time, with a policy of how a character gets to “own the floor” (probably using joint behaviors). But once this basic set of competency is covered, authors are free to create custom, quirky behaviors for their characters, that other characters, with no a priori knowledge of what those behaviors are, will attempt to interpret and react to. This will certainly lead to absurdist moments, but also hopefully some entertaining emergent narrative.

Like the IGJ, there could also be a musician participant to score the experience, perhaps creating a few character-specific refrains that get sequenced in real-time as the characters interact.

One question is, how possible will it be for participants to actually create something in such a short period of time, using an unfamiliar platform? Perhaps we should allow participants to get familiar with the platform before the Jam starts, and think about a character design, allowing them to immediately begin authoring at the Jam itself. We’d have to supply a full set of animations, low-level behaviors, etc. so that authors only have to do high-level writing and direction. Like the IGJ, Character Jam participants would need to be experienced practitioners and fast workers.

Another question is, like the game research thread discusses, how would we fund this? To prepare the Facade platform in this way, even though it would certainly re-use many existing low-level behaviors and NLU rules, would take 1-2 person-months of work mostly by me and/or Michael. And we need to host the Jam somewhere, requiring a PC per participant (maybe it should be BYO-Laptop), and the hosting of a little public workshop / exhibition at the end.

If the Character Jam worked out, a really nice by-product would be that the platform could be made available to others for their own Jams, and for interactive character research in general. Hey, perhaps the latter would be the avenue to get funding…