Gamemoir 04/25/2015 – ECGC Day Two and Day Three Reflections: Developers on VR and QA – Part One

There is no way to fit everything else ECGC-related in one post, hence Part One.


Most technology-focused conferences amount to disguised marketing ploys, concocted by product-pushing corporations. Conferences tend to perpetuate ideologies consistent with transhumanism (a dangerous New Age memetically transmitted infection common to billionaires who want to live forever) and technofascism — this is to say, ultra positive portrayals of technology, techs nouveaux as humanity’s Redeemer. People are valued in as much as they express monetarily their devotion to the latest tech toy.

Since 2006, Walter Rotenberry has sought to change the trend from presenters peddling wares to presenters providing useful trade-specific information to gamers, programmers, and designers. Let Day 2 and Day 3 of ECGC 2016 stand as irrefutable evidence of the success of Rotenberry’s efforts. In presentation after presentation, ECGC’s speakers and panelists offered priceless career advice and hard-won industry wisdom. Unlike other conventions and conferences, ECGC is truly about people, not products.

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Right on, Garth. Not everything should be about selling products.

Two speakers communicated ECGC’s message particularly well in their talks: Dr. Jennifer Elliott of the University of North Carolina in a talk on the right ways to bring Virtual Reality into classrooms and Chelsea Curran Adams, QA Lead of Epic Games, in a talk on teamwork and quality.

On Day 2, Dr. Jennifer Elliott of the University of North Carolina lectured on present-day educators’ Rift/VIVE/VR mania (in particular, fully immersive VR mania), showing it to be just another iteration in a historical pattern of education industry hype. Dr. Elliott summarized educators’ obsession with new technology as a pervasive belief that the tech industry is always one innovation away from radically changing the way we study and experience the world. Once new tech, now old news; as it has been since 1870, evermore shall it be – unless we get real about the limitations and the qualified promise of the latest tech craze.

Using a timeline of classroom tech breakthroughs (everything from the pencil to the projector) and the hype surrounding them at what we would now call launch, Dr. Elliott reinforced the need for teachers and students to understand the technology they use. Information on the new tech must be made freely available to teachers. If a VR tech company or software developer promises a VR-powered revolution in education and can’t offer the how and why specifics, then educators should assume the pitch to be industry hype, hot air, and little else. To use one of Dr. Elliott’s examples, porting a documentary from video to non-interactive 3D video is a waste of designers’, programmers’, educators’, and students’ time. Better just to play the video.

In order for an interactive lesson in fully immersive VR to be a worthwhile use of resources, Dr. Elliot argued, its quality must be assessed in terms of its purposeful utilization of all the unique aspects of VR. If the new VR technology is to be useful for educators, if new technology is to facilitate unique learning experiences, the technology must be what Dr. Elliott calls the “context” for the lesson, not just the medium which communicates it. Educators should be able to answer questions like; Does the lesson take purposeful advantage of simulated tactile stimuli, stereoscopic rendering, 3D sound, full 360-degree camera tracking, gestural inputs, etc.? The more specifically a teacher can answer these questions, the likelier the lesson is to be a worthwhile use of resources.

On Day 3, I attended a talk on teamwork and quality by Chelsea Curran Adams, Quality Assurance Lead of Epic Games. As in an earlier talk, Adams utilized constructivist techniques to emphasize the human element in the Quality Assurance process. She incorporated input from attendees, assured attendees that the presentation would “tie in everything you guys said here today,” and delivered on the promise. This implicit tactic made all the more compelling her argument that design is a collective activity.

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Adams examined the perks and drawbacks of two design methodologies, waterfall and agile. Waterfall is sequential, linear, with the entire team moving together through each design phase. At the expense of adaptability, waterfall keeps the team on the same page, so to speak, working together today on the physics engine, tomorrow on the control schemes, the next day on the level design, and so on. You can see how, if you suddenly need to back-track to a previous development phase, your team will have to do a lot of things over. Although waterfall is “demonized in the industry,” as Adams put it, indie dev teams often find it useful. When waterfall works well, it is more cost-effective than the alternative.

Agile development is the design methodology by which AAA games are made, almost without exception. With hundreds of people working on one game, it would not be feasible to have everybody – programmers, writers, marketers, graphic artists, motion capture artists, actors, testers, et cetera – moving rigidly from one design phase to the next. Rather than linear in progression, the agile methodology is cyclical, with QA assessments built into each phase of development. With agile, a large studio can have multiple teams in different phases of the design process at the same time. Agile’s drawbacks are its price tag for the company and, in the event of poor communication and incomplete documentation, its potential to engender chaos for the dev team.

True to ECGC’s focus on people, Adams suggested that devs use message boards to start a dialogue with the people who will be playing their game. It’s the players who will be most likely to speak up when they find a bug, encounter an established character behaving in an unexpected way, et cetera. In the games industry, Adams concluded, communication among people on all sides of a project is key to successful QA. At no point did her informative talk stray from useful methodological analysis into product placement.

On that note, have I told you about my Kickstarter?

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