Help us augment live streams of your game! For science!

TL;DR: HCI research group at KU Leuven looking for game studios to provide access to live game logs for 2 Master theses, or even collaborate with our group around data visualisation for streaming research

Every year our HCI research group defines a number of Master thesis topics for Computer Science and Engineering students. Our topics include data visualisation, recommender systems, augmented reality, learning analytics, and e-health.

As my expertise is data visualisation, and video games have always held a special place in my heart, it only made sense to merge the two. That’s why this year we have two Master students working on  “Designing live data visualisations for the new spectator sport: video games”.

The general idea is to use live (interactive) visualisations during a game to help a specific audience get a better understanding of and new insights in what is going on. Some examples:

  • help people who are new to the game to get a better understanding of the game
  • assist the streamer in informing their audience better
  • help the streamer’s fans get more insights into their specific idol’s activities
  • facilitate a better overview to assist commentators

… anything goes, but we’ll be narrowing it down ASAP, as both theses must be finished by June 2018 ;)

For this topic my students require access to activity logs of a game, preferably during live play. The availability and type of data will play a big part in the choice of game (type) and target audience of the visualisation.

So what we need is a game studio (big or small) that is developing a game with Twitch/e-sports in mind, or a studio that has an established game with e-sports/twitch popularity. What we want from you is access to detailed game logs or an API, for science!

If you think you could help in any way, let us know! We can work independently, sharing our research results in a way that can help you, or we can even look for official collaboration options (we could even apply for funding, certainly if you have offices in Belgium), within and beyond the scope of these theses (this might actually be very interesting for small Flemish indie studios because of government funding possibilities).

Interested? Want to know more? Shoot me an email, or leave a comment below!

In case you wish to learn more about us, read on.

A  Master thesis at the Human-Computer Interaction group.
Our process is that of design-based research, iteratively designing prototypes with a heavy focus on the user, involving them in the design process and the evaluations. The result should be a fully working prototype that has been proven to be an added value to the target audience, by being usable, useful, and generating meaningful insights. The student also writes a 50-70 page thesis text, reporting on the current state of the art, the thesis process and results, and the research contribution. To pass the thesis (a requirement to finish the Master program) the student has to successfully defend the work in front of a jury of academics.

About our research group:
http://augment.cs.kuleuven.be

About our university:
https://www.kuleuven.be/english/

About me:
http://svencharleer.com/blog/about/

My PhD Acknowledgements <3

Four point five years. Summarised in 131 pages and 18 scientific publications. That and a new title.

While the new title does sound cool (how else can one be taken seriously when announcing world domination), the biggest result is the little book: the dissertation, in my case, on Learning Dashboards. But while I hope the pages reach the intended audience (the Learning Analytics community), I wonder if anyone beyond that will read it.

Probably not. And that’s fine.

But more than just research and writing went into this achievement. A lot of people, friends, family, and colleagues, were part of the process. Pulling and pushing me along the path that led me here. So even if the main contribution doesn’t reach a large audience, I hope the acknowledgements in my book do. Without these people, I would not be where I am today, nor would this small advancement in Learning Analytics research.

So I could be ignorant and assume you’ll download and read the book ;) But I’ll just leave you with the first few pages, the important ones about.. the important ones.

Here we go…

Twenty years ago, I figured, let’s do Physics. I loved all things space and dinosaur related, and had an awesome Physics teacher. However, that same teacher told me studying Physics would most likely land me in Finance. So, I followed my other passion, Computer Science.

 

But after completing my degree and spending years in the private sector, I wondered if I had made the right decision. While I had a passion for programming, the lack of creativity that comes with a software engineering job (beyond the code) was killing me. Moving to Nottingham to pursue a career in games did not improve the situation either: a developer just develops, it seems. Side projects (indie game development and art academy) were an attempt to bring some creativity back into my life, but I needed a serious change where I spent most of my time: the day job.

 

The PhD was an unexpected opportunity that presented itself in my mailbox. Two weeks it sat there until I finally decided to reply. What followed was life changing. Research meant I could explore the unknown, build things no one had before, and join the user in their experience with our new creations. I got paid to create visualisations, play with new technology, and spend time thinking of all the crazy things we could accomplish with it. Both the nerd and the artist in me were satisfied. This might just be where I belong. It only took me 36 years to figure it out…

 

Thirty-six years is a long time. I owe where I am today to a lot of amazing people: for the opportunities, the support, the patience, and the listening.

 

I would like to thank Erik. In 2013, I somehow convinced him I would be the right guy for the job. When times got tough, he would keep convincing me I was. “I wasn’t that smart either and look where I am now”, a pep talk I will never forget. From all the “bosses” I’ve had, he was one of the few who genuinely cared about his people, at a personal, family, and career level. Thanks for letting me get to know you and your amazing family. Your awesome ideas will live on in our work, we will all make sure of that.

 

If it wasn’t for Bert, I would have never even considered a PhD. But it was his better half, Katrien, who got me in the room with Erik. I owe a lot to her. She stepped in just as I was close to jumping ship. She was the motivating force I needed, and pushed me across the finish line. Thanks to both Katrien and Tinne, this last year and a half of the PhD has been amazing. We’ve published great papers, made a name in the community, and put our stamp on student advice at the university.

 

Joris. What was it Jose said, thanks for the coffee? I’ll do one better: bourbon at Harvard, such an amazing trip! He never once doubted me, and I will never forget his endless “het komt goed” (it will be all right). And who’d have thought, it did! (I guess this calls for another round of drinks in Boston!).

 

I would also like to thank Andrew, Bieke, Yolande, and Martin, for taking the time to read my dissertation, providing valuable feedback, and a memorable private defence.

 

But my biggest thanks goes to Elke. I could not have achieved this without the love of my life (15 years this year, 10 as my gorgeous wife). Always supporting my crazy decisions. She quit a promising career to follow me abroad and let me pursue my game developer dream back in 2008. And in 2013 she supported me again in my biggest career change, when I gave up a well-paid, secure job to become a student once again. We were not expecting the PhD to be such a roller-coaster. I experienced moments of joy and despair, feelings that would affect her as much as it did me. But she always had my back, endured the after-work rants, and supported me in every way possible. Without her, I would never have managed.

 

Hazel joined us (in the womb) at the start of the PhD. Kids do not make things easier. But they do give you a reason to keep going. During dark periods of the PhD, she was always there to put a smile on my face (or add to the misery with sleepless nights. She’s a little monster like that). Hazel, if you read this when you are older, we love you and we will make sure you get to follow your dreams just as we could.

 

My parents, Marinette and Guy: they have always been there for me, supported me, and believed in me (and also provided me with all the nerdy hardware a kid needs to keep his technology interest going). And my grandparents, Meke, Vake, Peter Wieke, and Bobonne. Meke is not here to see this, but if someone believed I could pull this off, it was her.

 

My parents-in-law, Monique and Daniel, and the “Moekes”, for treating me like one of their own. Monique, the things you have missed out on, it is not fair. We miss you, words cannot describe.

 

Kurt, thanks for showing up at the defence (if you didn’t, this is going to be awkward). You’ve been that one true best friend. Always there in time of needs. And always making me look good at the board game table.

 

Franky, the bastard who pulled me out of the Flemish, secure mindset, and lured me to England. I ended up working long unpaid hours in Nottingham and lived amongst criminals and drunks. But I regret nothing!

 

José, for his unique perspectives on things, telling it like it is, and your attempt at keeping me sane through the PhD (it did not work).

 

Thomas for the babysitting and being Hazel’s coolest uncle. And “Tantan”, for taking care of Hazel all those Mondays, and for all the things you have done for Elke.

 

Kris, for bringing that new addiction into my life. The Nets won’t run themselves! Lies, for being Hazel’s awesome godmother. Jim, thanks for letting me win sometimes. Wait, no.

 

Sean, Jenna, Greg, and Johnny. One day Rad Lab Games will rise again!

 

François and Denis, we will make that dinner happen and bathe in Brasschaat’s sushi! Until then we will just shoot people online.

 

NorthgateArinso: Fred, Schtroumpf, Maarten, Karo, and Tom. My first and fourth job (thanks Samir), and also my last job before I ran off to academia (I am not implying anything!).

 

Everyone at Monumental Games and iChoosr, even though the stops were short, they were life changing.

 

My current, former, and visiting colleagues at the coolest lab of the Computer Science department: Yucheng, Karsten, Francisco, Gonzalo, Robin, Tom, Sam, Bruno, Victor, Gayane, Chen, Sten, Till, Frans, Samara, and Oana. And all the amazing people of the weSPOT, eCloud, and ABLE projects.

 

The Blade Runner soundtrack, for getting me through numerous paper deadlines.

 

And Bert. For getting me into this mess in the first place.

 

Dude, sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.

– Jake the Dog, Adventure Time

I love you, Pumpkin.

– Honey Bunny, Pulp Fiction

PhD in CS. Release Date: July!

It has been a tough 4.5 years, but the end is finally near! Last Tuesday I had my private defence, or “preliminary defence” (or viva for the Brits, I hear). In Belgium, this part is pretty much the scariest moment of your doctoral career: it’s the proper, final, oral exam. Sometimes it is an enjoyable chat where they (4 professors) treat you as peers for the first time, sometimes it’s a soul-crushing, head-ache inducing, exhausting emotional rollercoaster. Mine jumped around between these two extremes, with some of this:

Still, the experience was a good one. They do a good effort in making you doubt your work, and I walked away feeling more confident and proud of what we have accomplished these long years.

The public defence, where I get to bore the audience with 45 minutes of presentation, is planned on 6 July 2017. If you are in any way interested in Learning Dashboards, Learning Analytics, or just like free drinks and snacks, I suggest you come watch! If interested, do shoot me a message for the details (it’ll be in Leuven, Belgium)! Official invites will be sent in a few weeks…

Meanwhile, enjoy the slides of the private defence:

Deux Wallons et un Flamand play Overwatch

To those of you who don’t like to read, a summary:
Three Belgians (two Walloons and one Flemish, and sometimes a Mexican) will stream Overwatch every Wednesday, from 9pm CET until 11pm CET. So head over to Twitch and subscribe!
(yes this is an activity that’s helping me finish my PhD dissertation!)

Belgium is an interesting country. Super tiny, only 11 million people, yet home of chocolate and beer, fries, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tintin, the Smurfs, the saxophone, the contraceptive pill (the Catholic church loves us for that one), we invented both asphalt AND roller skates, and so much more. We do all right for an insignificant speck on this planet.

But what makes Belgians really different, is their attitude towards political correctness. We tend not to do that. Except for politicians and hipsters, maybe. But in general, we “respectfully” make fun of everything. Nothing is sacred.

And that’s fine. We don’t mind being the target of laughter and ridicule either (we’ve been through enough misery that we can see the funny side of everything) . Hell, we do it to ourselves on a daily basis!

You see, Belgium is split into several parts, but the most important ones (sorry Brussels, no one likes you) are Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders (the North, where I live) speaks Dutch, known by the South for extreme racism and intolerance. But at least we cycle and feel better about ourselves because of it. Wallonia, the South, speaks French, known by the Flemish as leeches who contribute nothing to society. What they lack in civilisation, they make up for in hospitality and cleaner air (yet they don’t cycle!). Before I get lynched by either side, these are stereotypical jokes we throw at each other. Jokes, people!

Yet, media and politicians seem to take these seriously, fuel the hate (which.. isn’t really a thing), and want to split this country in two.

But in reality, calling a Walloon lazy, or a Flemish a racist, is just a thing we do. “No offence”. Both sides know that. If they can’t take the joke, it usually means they’re Bruxellois (or lazy, or racist..).

So what does this have to do with anything? Overwatch, believe it or not. Together with a couple of Walloon friends (and the occasional Mexican), we’ll do a weekly stream to prove everyone wrong. That we DO get along. As long as we get to shoot other people in the face. Isn’t it beautiful how violence brings us together?

We’ll show them those stereotypes are as true as the lies about French driving skills, Dutch cheapness, British food, American obesity…

*cough*

We’ll show the true love that lives between the North and the South! No ham will come between us (ok that’s a terrible inside joke).

The stream will be in English, of course, and once we hit critical mass and make money, we’ll hire someone to subtitle the Walloons ;) ..

Jokes aside (I have to save them up for the stream), we’re planning on a weekly stream, every Wednesday, from 9pm CET until 11pm CET. So head over to Twitch and subscribe! You might not be disappointed!

 

“What’s in a game..”   Thoughts on indie game trends

I recently went to my second Screenshake, an indie game festival in Antwerp, Belgium, together with my fellow PhD candidate colleague Francisco. It’s a nice initiative that, among other things, tries to give the Belgian game scene a bit of  exposure and attempts to bring a diverse crowd together: a good balance in gender (both talks and audience), and the most diverse crowd on pretty much any level you can imagine. It’s.. impressive.

Francisco playing a Mexican character.. very Inception-like.

Francisco playing a Mexican character.. very Inception-like.

As a computer scientist, the event tends to get a bit too artsy for my taste. Choosing talks was difficult due to the limited information (only a short, sometimes very cryptic biography), and I couldn’t get to the Industry Talks on Saturday, which, I’m sure/I hope, were not artsy at all. So I chose the talks of  Annamaria Andrea and Pietro Righi Riva on Sunday morning, based on the fact that they’re academics as well, expecting very clear and fact-based presentations. Sadly however, they were both in a casual mode, presenting a lot of ideas and thoughts but lacking structure and a general clear message to take away (I have a feeling this blog post is heading in a similar direction). Okay, maybe that’s a bit too harsh, both were interesting talks. But it made me wonder where they want games to head. (Disclaimer: I might have completely misinterpreted these talks or their points being made, because everyone seemed to nod in agreement while we both looked confused. That’s what the comment section or @svencharleer is for).

I saw two trends, opposite extremes as you will: one towards too much freedom, and one towards too many restrictions in video game design.

Noby Noby Boy – PS3 2009

Freedom: Annamaria talked about authorship in games (I’m recently doing something in datavis around that topic. Totally unrelated! Not sure why I mentioned this. Hey it’s my blog): as a game designer, attempt to give a good amount of freedom to the player, try not to impose too much, and let them fill in the interpretations themselves. Made me think of Minecraft, or GTA when you rip out the story line. These sandbox environment promote creativity, personal input etc.  My question is, how do you categorise these games: where do you draw the line, when does it actually stop being a game. E.g. I can give a kid a stick, and they can pretend it to be anything, play for hours, but that didn’t make me a game designer. Sure, an extreme example, but a minimal guidance, a specific personal input from the designer seems necessary? How much deviation in interpretation do you want to give? How do you create those boundaries, for it not to remain a game? Nobi Nobi Boy comes to mind, by  Keita Takahashi. Sure, it looks like a game. But is it?  I’m biased of course, I like games with stories. I love Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian, Day of the Tentacle.. all linear stories that “hold my hand” so I don’t get lost. I’m not a fan of open worlds, except maybe World of Warcraft (but I’d hate it without the multiplayer aspect, which is a totally different story). Open worlds can retain my attention for about five minutes. Then I’m out.

Restriction: But that brings me to Pietro’s talk and his manifesto, and his attempt to broaden the reach of video games. A bit of a weirdly structured talk: he goes through all the steps of his manifesto but then spends half the talk about the issue of time flow. See, according to Pietro it’s important to create, say, a two hour experience. The player becomes more of a spectator, and has no real direct input on the outcome. You’d only play through it once, and using examples such as Zelda’s Majora’s Mask, he explains that it’s been done before, but not without the concept of looping, forcing the player to partake in some kind of Groundhog Day experience. He doesn’t want looping, but he doesn’t want you to miss out on anything either.

First concern? Why haven’t we seen real-time in games a lot lately? Because it doesn’t really work well. It puts a huge amount of stress on the player, and therefore it isn’t a good candidate to lure in non-gamers.  Secondly, how do you technically achieve this? One single run-through, but the player must be aware of all plot moments. I can think of two things: those 70s split screen cuts, and the FMV games Ground Zero: Texas and Night Trap (I bet the SJWs would have a field day with this one, if it were to be released today), where time moves on, and you have to constantly switch cameras to make sure you’ve seen it all (oh and shoot aliens). These mechanics might have been abandoned for reasons though.

Night Trap - Sega CD 1992

Night Trap – Sega CD 1992

A huge concern I have with this manifesto, is that it feels like Pietro is trying to copy, what is, a movie. A two hour experience you sit through. Interactivity is limited to changing focus, but if you want the player to not miss the important events, those interactions are by definition going to be meaningless. I don’t think it qualifies as a game, if you don’t actually play..  (that’s not completely true of course, and we can redefine this term as the industry continues to mature). Also, don’t try to appeal to such a large target group. If you want to reel in new crowds, design for them specifically. Do some participatory design, talk to your target audience. Whatever appeals to the masses isn’t necessarily good anyway.

Many games on demo did take queues from this manifesto: lots of games on demo were just  interactive experiences. It reminds me of the 90s, when the CD-ROM was released, creating an abundance of interactive multimedia. FMV was a big thing, but not an easy thing to interact with. The result? Lots of interactive movies. I’m sure it pulled in a lot of new types of gamers, but to those of us growing up with Mario and Sonic, it felt like a huge step backwards. I’m not saying there is no place for these experiences, but the classifier “video game” seems a bit far fetched. I won’t say “games” like Dragon’s Lair weren’t pretty though. But did anyone really enjoy playing those? Another example, I think this was L.O.C.K. by Tales of Tales, see below. Pretty? Sure…

today at #screenshake17 with @svencharleer

A post shared by Francisco Gutiérrez (@francisco.ghz) on

I appreciate Firewatch (loved) and Oxenfree (played through it yesterday) though. Those are good games. But I consider them on the border of being real games. Interactive stories, sure. Point and Click adventure? Barely..

OK, so with indie games you can experiment away. No barrier on creative freedom. That’s the beauty of it: no publisher breathing down your neck. And if it’s pieces of art you wish to make, only understandable and appreciated by a minority, sure, it’s your total right to do so. Abstract art has an audience. I’m not part of that audience, as you might have guessed. But again, do not coin the term game. Games can be art, but interactive art isn’t necessarily a game. And that brings me to a final “little” frustration that came up seeing some of the demos (totally due to the fact I’m working in Human-Computer Interaction, or maybe my impatience as I’m older now): “it’s not good practice to make something hard to use as part of your design” (messy controls aren’t art either). It took us (two average intelligent guys) a couple of minutes to understand the input methods for If Found, Please Return, which then sadly enough only seemed to act like a Prezi presentation. OK, too harsh, I’m just trying to make a point, I can’t judge a game properly from a few minutes on a demo floor. But it made us walk away,  which isn’t a good sign. Then some games will throw away a good button layout for a complete random mess no gamer would ever understand, e.g. triggers for jump and shoot in a shoot’m up platformer called Hivejump. As if Contra never happened :/ .. Recently I saw a friend try Broforce. He wasn’t new to games either. Felt like watching a toddler discover a platformer for the first time. (Phil Fish can say what he want about Japanese video games, but at least people don’t feel/look stupid when playing them) What I’m trying to get at is this: involving your audience in the design is important. Learning from successful designs is too. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Experimenting with new things? Sure. But do some solid user evaluations. Real users. Not your techy friends.. Don’t take it from me (hey it’s just part of my research/job), take it from Silicon Valley:

Being my blog, I have the freedom to do whatever I want. So I’m not going to give you a proper conclusion (I already have enough work trying to do so for my PhD dissertation). This post was a personal interpretation of my experience, so, in line with what I’ve learned at Screenshake,  I’ll leave the interpretation of this blog post to the player.. I mean reader. Feel free to contribute (or criticise, that’s .. the academic way!).