HandmadeCon 2015

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From left to right, Me (Matthew VanDevander), Abner Coimbre, Casey Muratori (holding the Owl of Shame), Andrew Chronister, Dustin Specht

So, I’ve just got back from one of the craziest trips that I’ve ever taken in my life. I headed out to Seattle last weekend for HandmadeCon, a convention which is centered around a low level game engine programming tutorial series which Casey Muratori broadcasts weeknights live on the Internet.

I’m not sure that I necessarily want to cover every single thing that I did while I was in town in excruciating detail, especially since there’s literally no way that I can put into words how awesome of an experience this has been for me. But I guess I’m writing something so I may as well talk about some of my thoughts about the experience.

Heading Out

I’ve never been on a plane before, so of course that was a little bit nerve-racking. It turned out to not be as big of a hassle as I thought it would probably be (what with the TSA being totally banana-cakes and all). I had some friends telling me before I left that they would never fly anywhere because they were scared of being on the plane, but much as I suspected for me: that turned out to not be a problem at all. I actually enjoy flying–insomuch as you can when you have a four-and-a-half hour flight packed in like sardines next to somebody that doesn’t want to talk to you.

Arriving in Seattle was just a surreal experience for me. I’ve never been so far away from home and everything that I know. I started to feel little bit alone, but luckily I met up with some people that I knew from the Handmade Hero chat at the airport.

About Seattle

The city is cold and rainy. Apart from Friday–the day I arrived, it rained pretty much the whole time. The city seems to have a lovely culture, feeling much more like a smaller city while still having lots of things to do. I had some of the most amazing food of my life while I was there, and overall I had a really good time, apart from the weather.

Because sometimes I think about getting outside of my bubble of Tennessee and maybe moving somewhere else, I naturally evaluated whether or not I could live in the city. My overall assessment is that I like it much better than, say Manhattan, but I’m still not sure I could live there if the weather is like that all the time. There’s also a little bit of just my general uncomfortable feeling about being in cities because of growing up living in rural areas. I always get a sense when I’m in the city that I can’t relax because something terrible could happen at any moment.

Meeting Online Friends

We ended up throwing a few meet-ups together for some of the conference attendees that wanted to socialize: the first of which was the night before the conference at a Szechuan place called Seven Stars Pepper. (Those Dan Dan noodles were amazing.) I had booked the reservation for 10 people initially, but I quickly had to double that. Thankfully somebody else reserved a table too, because we ended up having about 38 people show up in total (including Casey). So that meet-up was awesome, as were all of the social gatherings that we put together around the conference.

The Con

Since I was heading out there for HandmadeCon, it only makes sense for me to quit stalling and go ahead and talk about what I thought about the conference itself.

Overall, the conference was amazing. It was packed from beginning to end with amazing speakers who are totally at the top of their game in terms of what they do. Because Casey decided to go with a more informal “Fireside Chat” style discussion with each speaker, I feel like the conference was easier to pay attention to and felt more relaxed than the typical PowerPoint-centric type conference.

The best way for me to talk about what I think about the conference is to break it down by each speaker and give a few thoughts about each of them.

Tommy Refenes

In my assessment, even though he is often known as “and Team Meat” in favor of Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes contributed immensely to the design of Super Meat Boy. The controls and the physics of a platformer are a significant portion of the game design. To that point, the part of the discussion with Tommy about how early the controls, jump height, and movement speed were set in stone was interesting. My experience designing Duet showed me that the level design of an entire game naturally follows from those early low-level decisions, so it was cool to hear some familiar stories.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to discredit Edmund as a designer, because he obviously brought his own massive contribution to the game, both from a level design standpoint, and from a character and art standpoint. (The odd one out in this was Danny Baranowsky, who received no mention during the discussion for his amazing contribution to the soundtrack. It seems that the working relationship between Team Meat and Danny has soured somehow, as the latest ports of the game do not feature his music. I am not certain of the details though, so it may be possible that there are no hard feelings. )

The discussion with Tommy was overall an enlightening and interesting dive into Super Meat Boy. It was often technical in a way which I don’t think I had seen before, naturally because we were at a conference for programmers. (Not to say that there weren’t non-programmers that attended.) A lot of times when you see an interview with a programmer, everything gets talked about on a very high level. You rarely hear concrete technical details about how something works. So it was pretty great to hear about how the art pipeline has evolved over the years and some of how it was implemented.

Mike Acton

So Mike Acton is mostly known inside the Handmade Hero community for a talk that he gave at CppCon 2014 called “Data-Oriented Design and C++”, in which he made the argument that programming should be seen as problem solving using a computer, and that finding effective ways of solving problems requires focusing on the nature of the problem. Since most computer problems are primarily about manipulation of data from one form into another, as a programmer, your job is to focus on whatever the most effective way of doing that transformation is. The common Object-Oriented approach often misses the point, and focuses instead on world modeling using objects, which only makes the problem harder than it really is. Mike Acton’s approach, as outlined in that talk, is very much in line with the kind of programming that Casey does on the Handmade Hero series. Casey often calls his particular approach “Compression-Oriented Programming”, but I feel like any programming methodology with “Oriented” in the title is destined to become abused at some point. So my personal preferred description would be “Pragmatic Programming”, because I feel that puts the focus on the mindset: solving problems using a computer.

Mike Acton works at Insomniac. Being a AAA developer, he’s in sort of a different sphere then Casey or myself in terms of being at a big company with a lot of programmers and multiple projects. However, that’s really why it was important to have him at the conference. He stands as exemplary proof that Casey’s straightforward method of programming does actually scale up to very large and complex projects.

The discussion with Mike was perhaps less specifically technical to a certain game than Tommy’s, although that could be because Mike mostly works on more generalized technology, but there is still a hell of a lot of knowledge that he shared. As with the rest of the conference I definitely plan on re-watching it to try to absorb as much of that as I can. Also Mike was hilarious.

Pat Wyatt

So, I’m just going to go ahead and get this out of the way: I didn’t know who Pat Wyatt was before the conference. But wow–he has an unbelievable amount of expertise with network programming, which is a topic that gets brought up all the time in the Q&A on Handmade Hero. Unfortunately, Casey does not have a ton of experience in that arena, and the nature of Handmade Hero is to be single- player. So, Casey has been unable to really give people a good idea of how the system like that should be architected.

It was super cool to hear from Pat about how he managed the complexity of network infrastructure supporting Guild Wars, and did so in such an effective way that the game launched without the seemingly industry standard server issues.

Hearing the nitty-gritty details about how some of the content management systems for Guild Wars worked was really cool. It functions in a similar way to what Casey is doing for Handmade Hero, where if the game is unable to successfully load an asset during runtime, It just keeps going with an empty asset instead of crashing.

Again, this will be a great talk to go back through and refresh because there was just so much information there. Also Pat offered to come on the Handmade Hero stream to talk more about network code, which will be awesome if it comes to fruition.

Jonathan Blow

So, if you have known me for a while, then at some point I will probably have talked to you about Braid or The Witness. Braid has been my favorite game for a while and is probably the only reason that I’m still working on games now instead of pursuing some other career option. It literally changed my life.

Naturally, it was an amazing opportunity for me to both hear from Jon at the conference, as well as to briefly introduce myself and talk to him before he grabbed some lunch. ( Hopefully I wasn’t too awkward. )

I feel like the discussion between Casey and Jon was almost a breather from all of the technical details of the earlier conference. As much as Casey tried to push Jon to talk about very concrete things, Jon still talked about stuff from mostly a high-level. Jon does love metaphors, even if perhaps sometimes that means that the point that he’s making can get a little bit lost on some people with less experience doing the type of game design that he does.

That may seem like a criticism of the talk, or of Jon in general, but it’s really only a response to what I heard from some of the other conference attendees. I highly enjoyed the discussion between Casey and Jon, and my personal nitpick criticism would be that there was a few times where Casey failed to ask for elaboration on certain things that were highly understood between the two of them but completely unintelligible to me (and presumably the rest of the audience). At the start of the discussion, Casey brought up this possibility, saying that he would try very hard to pretend to forget everything that he knows about Jon and his games. I think he did probably as good a job as could be done, but there was still a little bit of that conversational short-cutting that you do among friends and people that you know very well. I’m not really sure i would be capable of anything better with my close friends if I were asked to talk for an audience.

Overall it was great, as always, just to hear Jon talk about whatever comes to mind. In particular I liked that the talk ran over a little bit into the break for Jon to go on a rant. His point about the apparent lack of results despite the increased prevalence of university game design and programming courses is apt and quite damning.

I definitely geeked out about getting to see Jon in person, since he’s been such an important influence of mine. I’m super excited to play The Witness when it “probably” comes out on time next year.

Ron Gilbert

What can you say, Ron is the definition of a game industry legend. He created the point-and-click adventure game genre (which has recently seen a little bit of resurgence, after a long period of being possibly deservedly dead). Not only that, but in creating The Secret of Monkey Island, he perhaps created the best game the genre has ever seen. Of course, games are a collaborative art, and there was a team involved in making that game besides Ron, but by creating a strong technical foundation for the game–in a similar way to Tommy–he contributed an undeniable amount to the game design and what made the game feel great to play.

It was totally awesome to hear a perspective from someone who had been in the industry since before I was even born. To learn about the challenges and perks of dealing with a completely different set of technologies and tools for producing games. The live reloading of assets on the Commodore 64 was a particularly awesome tidbit to hear about, but also amusing was the fact that they manually encoded all of the walk box information by hand for way longer than was probably reasonable.

It was also cool to hear about Ron’s current project, Thimbleweed Park: how as much as it’s a nostalgia project for fans of Ron Gilbert’s early work, it’s also a way for Ron himself and the rest the team to recapture their own past. It was a reminder that, at the end of the day, the reason that we all program games is simply because we enjoy it. There really doesn’t always have to be a better reason. It’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the feeling that I always need to be pushing game design forward and I shouldn’t be living in the past or whatever, but I think sometimes it’s okay to feel comfortable with doing something that’s purely for self-indulgent reasons.

Conclusion

I haven’t been to any other conferences but I’ve certainly heard from people that have that this was one of the best if not the best that they’ve ever been to. I don’t doubt it. I thought it was amazing and there was not a single speaker that I would not have gladly listened to for another hour at least. The discussions were extremely enlightening and enthralling to watch. I had a great time and I definitely plan on going next year. I look forward to the next speaker lineup, as well as getting to see all of the great friends that I met once again.

P.S. Campfire BBQ was the greatest barbecue I’ve ever had in my life. No scratch that: it was the greatest meal I’ve ever had in my life. If you’re in Seattle, do yourself a goddamn service and go get some of that barbecue now.
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3 Responses to “HandmadeCon 2015”

  1. Great post, Matthew! You summed up some of my own feelings on the conference, quite well! 😀

    In regards to Seattle weather — it’s not _always_ like this…just 90% of the time, between october and march. We do get plenty of sun in the summer! Glad you enjoyed the city, I happen to think it’s quite nice, though I’m a bit biased since I’ve lived here my whole life. Hope you can come out again soon!

  2. […] about it, but until I regain my equilibrium and get my schedule back on track, you could enjoy the thoughts of one of my roommates (yes!) Matthew VanDevander / GarlandoBloom. For my own part, I’ll […]

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