I’m kind of a big fan of this whole game development and game developers conference thing. This is especially true since the main conference started on Thursday. The Indie/Serious Game Summits are both fantastic, but the lectures and sessions in the main conference are just so good. And it’s hard to deny how awesome it is to see people you respect and who made great games talk about a topic they’re passionate about.
After the normal, at this point, morning in the Marriott lobby writing about the prior day, I went on over to the conference to attend Richard Rouse III’s “Environmental Narrative” talk. Coincidentally (or not?) enough, this session took place in the same room as the excellent Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch talk on environmental storytelling on Thursday. This means that there was a significant amount of people who wanted to get into this session in one of the smaller rooms of the conference that were unable to fit in. Rouse’s lecture went through a series of examples on various types of objects/scenarios that can be used to both convey a story in the environment as well as aid players in navigation through a level via visual cues and flow hints. Much like Smith/Worch’s talk, Bioshock was frequently cited as a brilliant recent example of a game with a very carefully and effectively designed environmental narrative. Once Rouse had gotten through a series of techniques and practices, he used his work on The Suffering (a superb game, by the way) to demonstrate ways that he and the rest of the development team handled the game’s design. One of the more interesting examples is that, despite gathering an abundance of information on prisons through the internet, The Suffering‘s development team did not actually get to visit a real prison until late in the game’s development. This trip gave them several ideas as to how they could make a more cohesive, believable prison (such as using awful shades of paint to visually separate various wards of the prison), but since it was so late in development a lot of the more interesting discoveries were unable to be used.
While Rouse presented some solid level design techniques and ideas, I feel like the entire presentation failed to make the leaps in critical thinking and design methodology when it was so close to doing just that. And this was actually an issue I discovered with a couple sessions throughout the day: a seeming unwillingness to attempt to draw general design lessons from experiences or to think critically about why (and where) a given design technique “works.” Going up to the podium to talk about how a game handled its approach to level design is interesting, but failing to think critically about why that design approach works is a step I consider both incredibly useful to a wider audience of designers and necessary for a compelling lecture. Granted, it’s hard to think critically about why the practices and techniques we employ as designers “work” (or don’t), but it’s the effort put into that thought which should define our role as designers. When I think about the talks/presentations I’ve heard from GDC either in-person or ones which have been archived online, they’re the ones that make that extra logical leap to answer “why?” When Clint Hocking gives a talk inspired by one of his games, he talks about the design lessons (such as intentionality vs. improvisation, simulation boundary, etc.), he does not point to a feature on a game, show the audience a video, and then cap it off with “so we did that.” The Worch/Smith session from the day earlier, for instance, covered how people, in general, “fill in the blanks” of a situation by going through an elaborate series of events to, ultimately, come to a conclusion. Worch/Smith then take that extra step to explain that this player-initiated investment into a situation not only enriches the environment they’re in, but brings that player closer to the game as a whole. I’m not intending to single out Rouse’s talk for this rant (because it’s actually inspired by another session that I won’t mention), but Rouse gave a very solid lecture that just came so close to that last necessary step.
Next up: Sid Meier’s keynote, “The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know is Wrong).” I had been told by several people throughout the course of the week that, generally, the keynotes are generally a letdown. Supposedly this is due to the incredibly large, diverse audience of people and disciplines that keynotes have to appeal to, but I was hoping that, being Sid Meier, this wouldn’t be the case this year. Unfortunately, it was. Sid Meier took audiences through a series of explanations as to why things that seemed “cool” ended up being received poorly by players. The primary example that Meier cited was that of “Mathematics 101,” which he exemplified in the display of Civilization Revolution‘s pre-combat information. When the aggressor had an attack rating of 1.5 and the defender had a defense rating of 0.5, Meier said this was a fairly self-explanatory display of the odds (3:1): the aggressor would win three times out of every four attempts. Players, he said, did not interpret it like this and, instead, assumed that their number was higher so they should win. He then took the audience on a few iterations of this concept in what I actually took to be somewhat of a condescending manner towards the players. In essence, the combat in Civilization Revolution evolved because players couldn’t get the “mathematics 101″ of the game, so Meier went on several iterations to make the ratio representation make sense to the player as well as to take into account how prior battles fared so that if the attack:defense was 2:1, then players wouldn’t lose two fights in a row.
One of Meier’s strangest examples throughout the keynote was that of flight simulators, though. He feels the genre started out by being “accessible” and “easy to play.” Then as they went through iterations they became more complex and more realistic and “pretty soon the player went from ‘I’m good’ to ‘I’m confused’. My plane is falling out of the sky.” Then, Meier said, “the fun went out of it.” He wrapped up this analogy by saying “keep your player feeling good about themselves.” I thought this little anecdote actually put me off from a lot of the rest of the keynote: who is anyone to say that the evolution of the flight simulation genre was a bad thing? It’s a definite niche genre, but that doesn’t make the genre bad or completely invalidate the design evolution it took. Then again, it’s an anecdote, so I’m probably over-thinking Meier’s intent.
After meeting with some old friends from Stardock for a bit, I went to the “What Color is Your Hero” panel featuring Mia Consalvo, Leigh Alexander, Manveer Heir, and Jamin Brophy-Warren. Without even a doubt in my mind, the panel was one of my highlights of GDC. It was an intelligent, insightful, and important conversation about the role of diversity in both video games and in the game development community. I wish I had some of the stats that Consalvo presented at the beginning of the panel, but alas. Heir championed the idea that utilizing a character’s racial/social background can enrich a game experience in ways that most all video games fail to realize; specifically, Heir cited the Native-American protagonist in Human Head’s Prey. The lead in Prey was ashamed of his background, wanted off the reservation, and was completely uncomfortable with who he was, but through the course of the game he learned to “spirit walk,” talked to his ancestor in a vision (which took place at what looked like a burial site, if I remember correctly), and so on. This feature of Prey‘s narrative transformed what would have otherwise been a game about dudes shooting aliens into somewhat of a Native American spiritual journey.
Alexander, in a discussion about the role of the developers and creatives in creating a more diverse cast of characters in their own games, raised a very noteworthy point: Resident Evil 5. In the case of Resident Evil 5, there are developers who were attempting at diversifying the characters and settings of their game and this, essentially, completely blew up in their faces. Alexander went on to say that it is understandable that a culturally homogenous development community would be nervous about attempting to portray a non-white character and subsequently screwing it up. She went on to say, however, that it can be done, the cultural/gender research just has to be done. The Wire was cited as an example of the work that series creator/writer David Simon did to present a wide variety of characters in a responsible way (though the series did take fire for its presentation of women). This was a great panel which gave a proper kick-off to some very necessary, important conversations.
My final session of the day was Lee Perry’s “Prototyping Based Design: A Better, Faster Way to Design Your Game.” Perry, a senior gameplay designer at Epic Games, took audiences through Epic’s process for game design starting with Unreal Tournament as the studio moved forward to the bigger, more cohesive project that eventually became Gears of War. The studio had a very design document-heavy and haphazard design process which was yielding poor results for what needed to be a more well-designed game than the studio’s prior projects. Kismet, which was an unrelated tool and “smaller problem” at the time, was being developed around the time when design documents were being tossed around the studio. One day Perry mentioned that he was screwing around with Kismet and tossing scaled-up shoulder pads on this big monster in order to, in a way, get this buff, big dude in the game. He tossed some “boom” speech bits on the character, showed it to some people, and eventually this little prototyped monster became the Gears of War Boomer.
Perry took the audience through the transition in design practices that occurred after this prototype was done; this involved the change from “design bibles” (very large, unwieldy design documents) to very active, designer-driven prototypes in the Unreal Engine using very basic Kismet parts such as elevators, triggers, and so on. Perry indicated the need for a designer to be more of a Chef, actively involved in the creation and iteration on a design, rather than a Food Critic, a designer who writes a doc and waits for the plate to be prepared by someone else before providing feedback. Perry’s session was a very practical, thorough, and well-presented lecture on the importance that rapid iteration and quick prototypes when it comes to showing everyone in a studio an idea. The importance of feedback (blood, audio, camera shake, etc.) to a prototype was also stressed; regardless of how quick a prototype is, the prototype must sell everyone in the studio on the idea and, as a result, it needs to properly and effectively communicate that idea.
Immediately after this session ended, I went on over to the IGDA/GameDev.net mixer being held at Jillian’s in the Metreon. I was held up at the door momentarily since I didn’t have the proper “IGDA Party” ribbon on my badge, but then I flashed my badge at Joshua Caulfield at the door and say “I’m GameDev.net” and was let immediately in. I felt powerful for approximately five minutes. And that was a fun little power trip.
Finally, I ended the day with an immaculate dinner organized by Michael Abbott. I met people like Matthew Burns, Simon Carless, Borut Pfeifer, Chris Dahlen, Krystian Majewski, and oh my god the list goes on and on and on and on. It was an incredibly couple of hours filled with the kind of fascinating conversation you’d expect from some of the most insightful writers in the game industry. It was a great ‘end’ to GDC (as I only have a couple sessions on Saturday and then I’m off to the airport).