The road to a PhD passes through Berlin

The road to a PhD passes through Berlin

The road to a PhD passes through Berlin

Guest”s post of Tali Ben Arush.

Over a three day period in April (23-25), I joined the Israeli delegation to a games conference in Berlin, “Quo Vadis – Where are we headed?”

The conference included a range of lectures from leading games makers (Blue Bite, ), key figures in the gaming industry (Al Lowe, Richard Garriot), as well as on a variety of games produced by students in games development programs, all under the banner of “Create. Game. Business.” The conference was held in Berlin, and this was the first time that it opened its doors to visitors from abroad: Poland, Ireland, Turkey, Spain, Israel, and others.

I joined the delegation because of my love for the world of gaming, and my wish to write a doctoral thesis on the development and construction of games by children in an online course and in cooperation with schools from other countries. My aim was to obtain inspiration, ideas, and directions, and to develop closer ties with people in the field.

So, what’s happening in Israel?

At a panel session on the Israeli games industry, Nir Maretzky, chairman of , the Israeli Digital Games Association, gave an overview of the present state of the Israeli game development industry. According to him, the industry in Israel has been, for the past two years, on a steady upward trend. The industry in Israel, made up of independent developers, small studios and small games development companies, has been successful in a number of core areas of the world game scene. These include , and , on the majority of platforms used in the field (cellular, PC, Facebook). On the other hand, the Israeli industry differs from the worldwide industry in that Israeli development is almost absent from the AAA games market, the market for expensive to develop, yet most profitable, games. This absence is explained by the lack of historical experience in establishing long term, resource hungry projects, along with the concern among investors that this is a high-risk area.

Since the association’s formation, about two years ago, a major effort has been made to close ranks and share valuable information in the various areas in which the Israeli industry excels. As a result, or perhaps by chance, some months ago Julien Codorniou, head of EMEA – the relevant games unit at Facebook – revealed that, in all of Facebook’s games categories, there is at least one Israeli company that stands out among the list of the 10 most successful games.

In the coming year, the industry – with the association at the forefront – intends to continue providing support and knowledge direct from the giants, such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft. In this way, it is hoped that this will pave the way to more successes, and will serve as a beacon to attract more investment in Israel.

Games are not just fun!

“A game is a significant medium, because you are the central character, and you are active throughout the whole game. There is no medium that can replace it; a game is not just fun!…” This was the opening to Benny Feibish’s speech. He claims that games are a good platform for learning, problem solving, creativity, thinking skills, and social skills. Benny suggests that the games platform be broadened to include real-world problems, by means of simulations taken from reality (which is what happens in reality-based games). A number of examples of such games have already been launched in a trial mode: foldit, a game of scientific puzzles dealing with proteins.  In the game, the player has to construct a suitable cell structure from proteins, making use of the tools offered by the game. Players accumulate points, and the one who gets the highest point score will have his work checked by real researchers in the field.

Another simulation and strategy game (a game in which the player maintains and manages resources, with the enjoyment coming from the strategy used) is The Sims, which is a very successful games series (as at 2011, The Sims was the highest-selling PC game series of all time). The player’s role is to manage the lives of virtual characters. The game was developed by Will Wright, who is well known as an original, talented games developer, and one of the founders of games development company Maxis (now a subsidiary of Electronic Arts). Wright is responsible for the creations such as Sim City (a computer simulation game in which the player manages a whole city), and another game named (which allows the player to control the evolution of species). Benny argues that when we play social games, this also influences our day-to-day behavior. In addition, Benny offers the use of Facebook as an example of an environment that responds to all our needs, and which reaches a broad audience.

To summarize, when you design a game, you can reach a new audience, and this is much more than just fun. Benny calls on designers to broaden the design of their games, and to think about questions such as: why do you design games? Is it for the money? What experience do you want? How can you influence others? How can the game contribute to others? What needs does the game address? From personal experience, a game is not just fun, but rather an element of lifelong learning.

Music Will Always Live On

Alon Kaplan is one of Israel’s most prolific, varied and creative composers and sound designers for computer games . In his lecture, he described a number of types of music used in games: music that excites us, music that surprises us, music that plays at different points in the game, music that indicates penalties or rewards, music that warns of something about to happen in the game. He also stressed various aspects of developing a piece of music, for example, the importance of using a variety of instruments, the need to obtain feedback from different audiences and clients, inspiration, and the multiplicity of musical styles.

Alon explained to the audience the idea of adaptive music – music that changes depending on the state of the game: music that changes depending on the level of intensity (for example – if you are being chased by a monster, then there should be more action, and so on), music depending on your location, music to indicate victory, music for when nothing is happening… and the smooth transitions between all of these musical passages, all of which create a different experience for the player depending on what he is going through in the game.

For a video report on Alon as a composer –

A 40-year-old bachelor

There was a lecture by Al Lowe, an American games designer who is known for adventure games that he developed, and is best known in the games market for having written, in the 1980s, the successful adult games series, Leisure Suit Larry, developed for Sierra Entertainment (an American games company that developed computer games from 1979 to 2008). The principal character in that series is a bachelor in his forties – short, balding and rather thickset – by the name of Larry Laffer, who spends most of his life trying to seduce attractive women, without much success. In his lecture, Al spoke about his life: “In 1960, I was a computer geek: President of the Science Club, the Music Club and a member of a jazz band, and all this formed the basis for me becoming a games designer.” Later, it took him half a year to develop the game; when it came onto the market, sales were almost nil, but slowly they picked up and the rate of sales doubled and tripled. Al said that, at the beginning, he worked in games development as a programmer, graphic artist and composer (in short, everything). He claimed that the game was successful because it understood people and their behavior.

Games – Not just for men

In 2009, David Smith set up a professional network to advance women in the games industry, the . In his lecture, David revealed a worrying statistic, from research that he carried out in 2010, which indicated that 65% of women feel discriminated against in games companies, or reported that they suffered from discrimination. His lecture dealt with the importance of women in the games industry; he emphasized that diversity was good for business, and that 34% of the women had brought about an improvement in business. Diversity and a range of skills are the key to the success of these companies. Improved awareness of the involvement of women  is being achieved through various media: Facebook, LinkedIn, and

Richard Garriot

Another lecture that created a great deal of interest and excitement was that by Richard Garriot, a well-known, highly skilled games developer, who has even been to the International Space Station (he was the fifth tourist to the visit the station). Garriot was responsible for the successful Ultima series of computer games (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and more). In his lecture, he shared with us the importance of creativity and of sources of inspiration for games development; he stressed that these sources should come from outside the world of games, for example, from books or movies. He also emphasized the importance of graphics in the games, and he admitted that this was an area in which it was difficult to beat other companies. Garriot underscored significant aspects in the games development process: development of games that reflect reality, giving an active role to the players, the issue of social relevance as a way of making the game more meaningful to the player. In his opinion, the moment we build or design a game, we have to provide responses to our clients, who are used to playing experiential games such as these. As a developer, you create two worlds – the one that you have developed, and the world of the player. Some tips from the lecture: It’s important to get feedback at an early stage of the game’s development; give the customers a chance to play the game even before they have bought it; in the game, you shouldn’t force people to be too good; don’t work under pressure; listen to others; and issue the game when it’s ready, without bugs.

And what about the students from the games development program?

The conference was attended by numerous students from games development programs, who presented computer games that they had developed. One of the more interesting tools that was on display was articy, an interesting, useful cooperative tool for games design. You can look at some links here:

articy:draft –

In summary, the conference provided me with inspiration and motivation to continue to think outside the box in formulating the subject of my doctoral thesis. I was also exposed to games developers who, notwithstanding the many difficulties they faced, were able to meet the challenge and come up with substantial, profitable games. I understood the necessity of sticking to my goals, and of promoting the idea of integrating games into education, out of a belief that it is possible, using games, to both teach and learn in a meaningful way, over an extended period of time.