Posts Tagged "gdc"

GDC 2011: Day 3

Day 3 started, much like Day 2, at 5:00am, because for some reason I’m under the false assumption that I should continue waking up at my normal time all week.

That is a poor assumption.

Day 3’s sessions started with the keynote from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, and was entitled “Video Games Turn 25.” Largely, the session was about Iwata recounting the early days of Nintendo and attempting to promote feelings of pride and ambition in the development community through a variety of anecdotes. This part of the session was actually great to listen to, but it’s when Iwata began talking about the features and promise of the Nintendo 3DS specifically that the keynote became more of a light version of Nintendo’s E3 press conference (Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimes even came out at one point to talk at length about it).

What should have been the keynote was the next session, given by former Ubisoft Montreal Creative Director and now LucasArts creative Director Clint Hocking (about whose site/twitter name I had a remarkable discovery). The session, entitled “Dynamics: The State of the Art,” was general enough and entertaining enough to appeal to just about anyone at GDC — not just the game design track it was on — and contained an abundance of useful and insightful information. Hocking, whose GDC lectures are consistently amongst the best sessions that GDC has to offer, posited that before we bother talking about what specific video games mean, we need to understand “how they mean.” Hocking’s point being that we need to be able to understand the most basic aspects and at the highest levels of how an interactive medium conveys meaning through play. No single part of this session was mind-blowing, but its tremendous holistic value cannot be understated.

Next up was the GDC Microtalks, with Naughty Dog lead designer Richard LeMarchand presenting all of the individual speakers (ranging from David Jaffe to Colleen Macklin to Brenda Brathwaite) in his opening microtalk. It was in this opening microtalk that LeMarchand gave the theme for the session: “How you play.” Nothing in these sessions provides new information, but each lecture had a very sentimental core (except Jaffe’s, which had a largely practical tone about the amount of time it takes to get into console games) with the takeaway being largely inspirational in nature.

It was around this point that I disliked that the main conference didn’t have the same lunch break time instituted that all of the summits do. Not that my abilities to eat a sandwich while walking are particularly bad, but they are.

Frank Lantz’s “Life and Death and Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime” was next and it was a very interesting talk to hear, as I am largely unfamiliar with Go and a pretty poor Poker player. Lantz’s primary purpose was to illustrate the timeless nature and endless depth that both of these two games have and the way that they are pervasive in the mind of anyone who plays them. My favorite point was the relatedness between the notion of “expected value” and probability in Poker and how it leads people to inadvertantly come to understand the scientific method through a practical introduction to what is, essentially, bayesian theory.

“The Failure Workshop” was next and, really, the main takeaway from the whole session was to prototype early and test out ideas before rat-holing into tangential work too early on.

My favorite talk of the day came from Kent Hudson, a game designer at LucasArts and former designer at 2k Marin who did Bioshock and the in-production X-COM, entitled “Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?” In the session, Hudson went over both the theory/ideas behind a more systemically-driven game design that allowed games to take a less prescripted approach to story-telling and a more involving player experience. The way to get here is to more systemically measure a player’s actions and, specifically, their relationships to other entities in any given game. Through this relationship monitoring, the game can heuristically monitor a player’s actions and, as necessary, react to the sum total or an individual component of all that collected data when the time is right. Hudson referenced the three tenets of self-determination theory to determine what players really need in order to reach “happiness”: autonomy (referred to as “agency” in the session), relatedness, and competence. And it is through the successful recognition and embrace of these three pillars that a game can properly involve a player in its world. Hudson then took the necessary step from all of the theory into the practical world of AAA game development, by highlighting that it is necessary to rethink the way that AAA games approach content in order to properly be able to fill out a game world with content flexible enough to be able to respond to a variety of player stimulii. Hudson, specifically, referenced the removal of five major time- and money-consuming elements of content: VO, custom writing, environments, models, and animation, and ways to really “own” a style that allowed a development team to re-appropriate its budget as necessary for a game that isn’t as prescripted as a lot of today’s games typically are. Given that the last thing I wrote for my site was entitled “The Systemic Integrity of Expression”, I agree fully.

It’s somewhat sad that directly across the hall from Hudson’s session, David Cage was saying things like “Game mechanics are evil. Mechanics are a limitation. We need to redefine what interacting means.” Which, I mean, no.

After the day’s sessions wrapped, it was time for the Independent Games Festival awards show and the Game Developer’s Choice Awards show. Unlike last year, the awards show was unexpectedly entertaining and completely hilarious due to IGF host Anthony Carboni and GDCA host Tim Schafer being thoroughly amazing. It weirded me out a little that, during the Game Developers Choice Awards, so many of the categories were filled with games that I had so little love for. The closest I got to rooting for a game was when Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies and Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker were both up for a nomination (in the same mobile game category).

The day ended with some good fun at the Nidhogg tournament at the Eve Lounge and then some other miscellaneous happenings.

GDC 2011: Day 2

GDC 2011 – Day 1 entailed me getting into San Francisco fairly late, grabbing dinner and beer with some bros, and then pretty promptly heading to sleep. At 8:30pm local time. INTENSE.

So, that was Day 1. This is Day 2.

One of the reasons that I chose to only have one day worth of summits this year is that, last year, the Independent Games Summit and the Serious Games Summit both had their share of highlight but were, largely, not particularly interesting to listen to. It feels like some of the independent speakers show up, have heart, and have a great message that they want to communicate to the crowd. Other IGS speakers, however, despite being very talented developers with great personalities, either don’t have much of a message to convey or aren’t all-too-great speakers. So, this year I chose to just condense some Social and Online Games Summit, Independent Games Summit, and Serious Games Summit sessions into a single day of things that I really wanted to see.

And that’s what I did! Of course, everything took a bit of time to get rolling since I’m still, largely, operating on my normal central time-acclimated schedule so I was up and awake at a prompt 5:15am local time. Which meant that it was time for breakfast:

I ran into various people all morning but, since it was morning, you do people teh kindness of not letting conversations linger as people require caffeine. And some of us needed a second Red Bull. Some of us being me. Anyway. The first session I attended was at the Independent Games Summit and was given by Jamie Cheng of Klei Entertainment talking about “The Journey to Creating Shank”. Next was the incomparable Derek Yu who talked about transitioning from the beloved freeware Spelunky to Spelunky XBLA (it looks amazing, for your edification on the matter).

Next up I followed some friends to the Social and Online Game Design summit for what was probably my favorite session of the day: “A Debate: Are Social Games Legitimate?”. The panel was moderated by Margaret Robinson and featured one of my favorite speakers about social games, Ian Bogost (who made Cow Clicker) along with a few other panelists. The panel didn’t make it particularly deep into the topic, but there were some entertaining (and some interesting) conversations back-and-forth between, what at least appeared to be, a fairly opinion-diverse set of panelists. What I enjoyed most about this panel were the reactions the social game developers had to Ian Bogost’s fairly pointed questions (accusations, in some cases) as to the ethics of social game development and, as the social game developers rightly responded, the ethics of game development as a whole. Also one of the panelists had a particular fondness for cupcakes, citing on numerous occasions that he thought it was “pretty cool” that he could send a digital cupcake to his mom and that could “get a conversation going sometimes.” Cupcakes.

It was unfortunate that most of the panelists seemed as prepared for debate as Bogost was, as mostly anecdotal evidence seemed to be relied upon for points.

What followed the social games debate panel was a nice, lengthy, gorgeous little faux-picnic near the convention center with a variety of friends from around the game industry. Including Florida. Poor, poor Florida.

The summit-filled afternoon picked back up with an amazingly well-presented and well-discussed talk by the ever-impressive Jane McGonigal on “gamefulness.” McGonigal leveled a variety of criticisms as the whole wave of “gamification” that has occurred within the game industry, but not ruled out the idea as a whole. She simply aims to redefine the goals of “gamification” into something more like “gameful”(ification). One of the best quotes of the entire presentation was “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.” McGonigal’s view of game design and the goals of play do not particluarly align with those of mine, but I do enjoy hearing her espouse her very numerous and well-researched thoughts on the subjects. I was somewhat disheartened that the session had no time for audience questions, as one of my principle complaints with the whole notion of “gamification” is that it seems to have the goal of making mundane tasks (and, in a lot of cases, even non-mundane tasks) more “fun” by “gamifying them.”

The example that Jane McGonigal gave of gamification/gameful-ification was that the New York Public Library approached “gamification experts” with the goal of getting young people to read more, as due to the internet and wikipedia they were finding that not many young people went to the library anymore. The goal of gamification in this case would be to provide extrinsic incentives to youth in order to get them to go to the library and read more and so on. Ignoring the high-level fact that this is simply strange, the more important point is that gamifying or gameful-ifying this problem simply fixes the symptome (kids not going to the library) rather than the actual problem (kids not reading as much nor having reason to go to the library). And, this example aside, gamifying seems to ignore that what makes games and play fun is that they have an ebb-and-flow with reality and “real life”; that separation is what makes each work so well.

The rest of the day’s sessions were at the Independent Game Summit, starting with Andy Schatz’s “How to Win the IGF in 15 Weeks or Less.”. What worked in this session was not Schatz’s considerable personality, but the heart with which he spoke and the way he bound his personal life into the development of Monaco. Aside from showing a histogram of his own bank account throughout his time as an independent developer, Schatz also showed a variety of Facebook updates starting with one which was obviously done in a poor mood and ending with one of exuberance as he finishes up the IGF build of Monaco. The session also closed with an impromptu play-through of a level of Monaco by volunteers from the audience (and the game looks rad).

And, finally, the last session of the Independent Games Summit was the Rapid-Fire Indies microtalk session which had five-minute presentations from speakers like Chris Hecker, Notch (of Minecraft fame), Kyle Pulver, Anna Anthropy, and other speakers. The session, on the whole, was a little disappointing due to a variety of sessions on somewhat common topics like game jams, the use of “indie” as a label, and piracy. Beginning the microtalk session with someone like Chris Hecker talking also seemed like a strange move; he had a great topic, his usual abundance of energy, and packed a pretty crazy amount of information into a single five-minute presentation.

The day slowly ended from there, but here’s a picture of Michel McBride-Charpentier vs. Jorge Albor in a game of Metagame; the debate card placed was “Which game has a more intense subculture?” And the debate was between Minecraft and Dance Dance Revolution. And somehow Michel lost with Minecraft, so that’s pretty astounding.

Also Vagrant story is now on the Playstation Store in PSOne Classics. Get it posthaste.

GDC 2010 Wrap-Up

Today was my last day at GDC and, at that, it was quite a short one. While I was waiting outside of my first session, a woman came up to me and announced she was a speaker and asked if she could borrow my Mac cord. I said sure. She said I saved the conference. I said “I do what I can.”

My first session of the day was one which I, quite honestly, attended solely to write-up a mocking article later on. The session was Richard Rouse III’s “Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry.” And, if you check out my write-up on the session, you might notice a lack of mockery. This is a result of Rouse handling the topic far differently than I originally intended. I still think it’s an absurd topic for a session and handling the material somewhat well doesn’t change that fact, but it’s not the source of humor I expected going in. Rouse gets extra points for showing the Mad Men scene where Don Draper demonstrates the advertising campaign for Kodak’s Carousel.

Immediately after that twenty-five minute session, I went on over to “Designing Shadow Complex” with Donald Mustard. It’s unfortunate that this equally short session had to be so abbreviated, because Mustard was not only an incredible speaker but also was showing some amazing procedural tidbits regarding Chair’s approach to developing Shadow Complex. Most fascinating was that Mustard and the Chair team used Adobe Illustrator to create an entire ‘paper’ graph of the world map of Shadow Complex. It was divided into the squares/screens that divide the actual game’s world and included various guards, pick-ups, blocked doors, ladder, and, seemingly, a level of clarity for the full game world that was completely fascinating at such an early point in the game’s development. On top of this, Chair developed a “player legend.” This is the size of the player, the way he can charge in either direction before he hits critical speed, how high a single jump goes, how high a double jump goes, and the maximum height of the player’s hook shot. The team then dragged this player legend around the map to get an approximate idea for how Shadow Complex‘s planned game world would play out.

Once the team was happy with it on a paper level, the entire game world was blocked out in Unreal Engine in BSP and with some pick-ups and enemies and very basic cover. This allowed the team to get into the game with and iterate on and perfect the core gameplay loop. Mustard said handling the development of the game this way allowed them to add more and more weapon functionality that really worked together with the world to create emergent strategies and functionalities. It was a fascinating look into the game’s development on a level that I would have adored to see in, say, the Uncharted 2 post-mortem. I asked Mustard how they handled changes once the BSP world had been made, and he said that once the game world block was in the engine that all changes were made directly to the BSP layout (which makes sense) and also that the original BSP brushes formed the basis of the game’s collision volumes in a lot of cases. Lee Perry’s prototyping talk the day prior had as imilar level of depth and behind-the-scenes to actually aid developers as well.

I ran out of the Mustard’s session once I had my process question answered and ran into a nearby lecture hall to get my MacBook power cord back. It was here that I realized the woman who asked to borrow it was Christina Norman, lead gameplay designer at Bioware on Mass Effect 2, and had just finished giving a giant speech on the design refinements between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. So that was awesome. Next up on my rushed attempts to get back to the hotel and head to the airport was a quick meet-and-talk with Manveer Heir, lead designer at Raven Software. He was talking to Michael Abbott when I came to say hi, so it was great to briefly talk about Manveer’s talk with him and once again thank Michael for organizing last night’s dinner. And this brought an end to my first-ever GDC.

GDC was, quite simply, a totally fantastic week. I’m not a quiet person, but I am very shy about introducing myself and meeting people, so it was totally great to meet all these super friendly people who I’ve talked to online about games in various forms for years. And listening to five days of sessions gave me some great insight into various design processes as well as some ideas of my own both for my independent work as well as my work on our project at LightBox. My one regret is that there were some people I met that I didn’t get to talk to in much detail, but that’s just kind of a thing that’s bound to happen at a ginormous conference like this.

Here’s a wrap-up of my daily GDC write-ups. It’s also worth noting that I didn’t do full write-ups of all of my sessions as I don’t complete hate myself enough to do that, so there are analyses and summaries of various other sessions buried throughout my daily write-ups.

And here’s a list of all of the live write-ups I did on various sessions/lectures throughout the conference. I can’t stress enough that these are very rough, but I felt it was more important to get them up for people who wanted the information than to spend a lot of time on polishing the writing. This is why I’m not a real journalist.

Thanks to and LightBox Interactive for making this whole trip possible.

GDC 2010 – Day 6

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/ 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” 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).

GDC 2010 – Day 5

Yesterday I learned the meaning of the oft-heard phrase throughout the early part of the week: “GDC hasn’t even really started yet.” It appears that the Summits/Tutorials make up only a fraction of the total GDC audience once the main conference has started and the expo floor is opened up. All of the parts of the Moscone Center that I’ve gotten used to navigating have approximately three times the amount of people as they did during the days prior. The other main difference is the kind of people you just randomly see; I left a session a yesterday and ended up pushing through a crowd of people right behind Reggie Fils-Aimé. That was kind of a random thing.

I started off my day with the typical write-up and catch-up on my MacBook at the Marriott Lobby across the street from my hotel. At some point during this phase of the day I realized that my first session was at 9:00am, instead of the 10:00am start time for the summits/tutorials, and quickly packed up my stuff and booked it to my first session of the day: “The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design” which I somehow failed to realize was a presentation by Peter Molyneux. The session was, fundamentally, about Fable 3 and about 50% of the presentation was irrelevant as a design talk, but I still managed to get some really great insight into why the changes between Fable 2 and Fable 3 were being made.

Immediately after Molyneux’s talk I went over to check out what I felt would be one of the best sessions of the conference: “Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Metegame of EVE Online.” One unique aspect of this session is that it was given by a player, not a developer. That said, this was also one of the most complex talks that I attended over the course of the entire conference thus far (and for some reason chose that one to write up). The speaker was Alexander Gianturco (The Mittani), a director-level member of SomethingAwful’s EVE corporation: GoonSwarm. Over the course of the talk, Gianturco illustrated all of the crazy depth, time, and subterfuge that makes up EVE‘s espionage metagame. I already wrote-up the talk, so I won’t go too much into it, but this talk was far and away the most original of all of the GDC presentations of the year. I pointed this out in my write-up, but it was just mind-blowing that such an infamous EVE player actually plays the game very rarely these days. Most of Gianturco’s work in EVE is the management of the espionage metagame versus ICQ, Jabber, and forums.

Unfortunately, I made the poor decision of switching from my planned attendance of “Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3” to the Uncharted 2 Post-Mortem by co-lead game designer of Naughty Dog Richard Lemarchand. This wasn’t a bad presentation by any means, but it was a completely sterile, typical post-mortem. Very little in the way of behind-the-scenes information or nitty-gritty design details were presented throughout the entirety of the talk. One interesting studio practice, however, was Lemarchand’s discussion of the sole deliverable of the studio’s pre-production process: a macro game design. Unlike some studios, Naughty Dog treats the macro game design as a somewhat high-level, abstracted spreadsheet of the entire game’s progression, gameplay, story beats, characters broken up level-by-level. I would have adored to hear Lemarchand talk in more detail about how this document was created and what its level of granularity was (all that could be seen was a small screen shot), but that was apparently not in the cards.

While the EVE talk by The Mittani was fascinating, the absolute best session of the day was Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch’s “What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling.” This talk was given from the perspective of level design in first-person games and how to imbue non-critical small vignettes/stories into the environment of FPS levels where normally a designer would just mindlessly place props. Smith/Worch focused on the active process of thinking through a series of events and how intelligent prop/asset placement in a game environment can create interesting stories that the player can connect the dots with in his head. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was cited as saying, paraphrasing here, that the most powerful part of a comic is what happens in between the panels where the reader bridges the gaps in his own mind. The idea here is that inviting players to use their own minds to figure out what happened in a given scene and, in doing so, these players become more invested and more interested in the game world as a result.

It was at the point where Smith and Worch began discussing systemic environmental storytelling techniques where my glee hit its ceiling (well, that’s not entirely true, but more on that soon). The pair brought up an example of the user of decals in Half-Life 1 where a player would shoot walls to make smiley faces out of bullet holes. This player did this two or three times in the same hallway. A bit further into the hallway, you see the dead body of a player right below a half-finished bullet hole smiley face (which has a bunch of other random bullets strewn around it). The story that arises from this is that there was this player just completely screwing around with environmental “damage” and he was so invested in creating his ‘art’ that he had no idea someone was right behind him when he/she shot him in the back. As the viewer, we saw none of this occur in real-time, but we put the pieces together by looking at the scene. Since multiplayer games entail players going through the same map over and over and over in a circular progression, systemized environmental storytelling was the long-term persistence of decals/bodies/shell casings (and anything else that is the result of a player action) which persists in the world to create an overarching narrative of player actions. I can’t even convey how much of a nerdgasm I had throughout this talk. And then Clint Hocking asked an insightful question and then my glee level hit the ceiling; Clint Hocking action shot:

The sessions for the day ended with a psychology-focused analysis of the role that achievements play in video games and whether their use as external motivators for tasks is “harmful.” The talk was given by the super intelligent, fast-talking, quick-thinking Chris Hecker and was a very responsible look at the role that these external motivators factor into our psychological development as we play games. It’s hard to properly summarize the talk, but the general message is that while rewards for tasks are generally “bad,” the closer they are to endogenous awards (thematically/media-appropriate/related) the less damage the reward does as a Skinnerian conditioning technique. Achievements, however, are not endogenous whatsoever and, therefore, become a completely abstract reward which damages a player’s intrinsic motivation to do what should be an inherently fun task.

The night ended with my first-ever attendance at the Independent Games Festival/Game Developers Choice Awards. Over the course of this event I got to see Cactus deliver a hilarious acceptance speech, Warren Spector, Will Wright, Gabe Newell (introduced via a very earnest and fantastic speech by Chris Hecker), and John Carmack. Overall, the day was like a nerd heaven. It also ended with a meal involving margaritas and chicken flautas, so, I mean, an all-around win, really.

GDC 2010 – Day 4

Despite being my first GDC, I actually feel like I’m kind of getting the hang of things. I started another morning in the lobby of the nearby Marriott by writing up the day prior (much like I’m doing right now). Unlike the last few days, though, I have 9:00am sessions to make rather than 10:00am ones, so my attempt at writing up the day is going to be much abbreviated. Which is unfortunate, because these little daily things are my favorite thing to write up.

Day 4 was all about indie. I was in the same session room (Room 135) all day long listening to what were, primarily, all superb sessions. The day was kicked off with Kellee Santiago and Robin Hunicke talking about “How to Manage an Exploratory Development Process.” Despite there being far funnier, even somewhat more insightful and original talks throughout the two days of summits and tutorials, the Santiago/Hunicke talk was a marvel. It’s so completely rare, especially in this industry, to hear a talk from people who are not only genuinely passionate but optimistic and who preach the emotional relevance of a team development atmosphere. The pair revealed (namely Santiago, as Hunicke was not, I believe, a member of the team at this point) that at the end of Flower‘s development cycle, Thatgamecompany was on the verge of self-destruction. Santiago said that if the team kept along their path at that point that they would not have lasted past their three game contract with Sony. Robin Hunicke was brought on that this point as a producer and, as she took the stage, talked about all of the lengths she went to in order to get a better, more comfortable, less anxious team dynamic. The pair ended their talk with the promotion of optimism and happiness because if the “five years to burnout” stat was true, the pair, they said, would not be able to play “your” games. It was a rare sort of talk for this industry and conveyed a mood and message that this industry desperately needs.

Next up was a talk by Mark “Messhof” Essen and Daniel Benmergui about “Control Inspiration” where the two talked about their various visual and interactive inspirations for their games. It was an odd talk given by a pair of incredible designers/developers, but it was unfortunate to see how scatter-shot Messhof’s presentation of his material was. I know, indie, etc. Benmergui, however, took the audience through a completely interesting evolution of his remarkable game Today I Die. He talked about how the game’s “poem mechanic” evolved over time from something simple, to something very cool but incredibly complex, to the final version that was in the game. Benmergui ended by showing off the iPhone evolution of Today I Die which looks promising.

As I was leaving this talk, I ran into Ben Abraham and Nels Anderson. These are, really, the first of a group of incredibly smart game critics/developers that have inhabited a special circle on the Internet. As someone who grew up in isolation of the game industry as a whole, it’s always completely amazing to meet people you’ve interacted with frequently online. Unfortunately, as tends to be the case, I was already late for a lunch thing so I couldn’t talk nerdy game stuff, but there’s an entire dinner for that later in the week.

One of my favorite moments of the day was in the “Minimalist Game Design: Growing OSMOS” where Eddy Boxerman and Andy Nealen. Boxerman gave what was, largely, a somewhat uninspired and disinterested talk about the game’s evolution over the two-and-change years of its development. Boxerman showed off OSMOS at various stages of its development talking about what worked and what didn’t and how they maintained a minimalist approach to its design throughout its development. It was neat to see, but Boxerman’s portion of the lecture paled in comparison to when Andy Nealen, a developer on the game and a professor at Rutger’s University took the stage. For the next six-eight minutes, Nealen talked about the tenets of minimalism in game design from a somewhat academic/game theory approach. Nealen stole the afternoon with this incredibly abbreviated, dense, and insightful speech on “economy” and “coherences.”

Immediately after the OSMOS talk was “Indie Solutions to Design Savvy Somethings” by Adam Saltsman, Alec Holowka, and Andy Schatz. I already wrote this talk up, but it was incredibly sad to see each of these three incredibly intelligent speakers cut short by time. Adam Saltsman was, for instance, only able to get about ten minutes into what looked like a twenty minute talk. The gist of this talk was promoting what was inherently indie about indie game development as opposed to the AAA style of game development. The best part of this talk was that all three speakers managed to laud the benefits of indie development without feeling the need to slag on AAA game development (because they’re completely different beasts, neither bad).

The final two sets of presentations were an art panel with Derek Yu (Aquaria, Spelunky), David Hellman (Braid), and Edmund Mcmillen (Gish, Time Fcuk). It was a worthwhile panel overall, but, for the most part, it largely felt awkward and stilted until the panel started getting into more personal, process/artistic conversations.

Shortly before the next session I was able to meet and talk to Chris Remo, the incredibly talented and passionate gamer, writer, and podcaster. Once again, this is a person I’ve “internet known” for years and have had the pleasure of talking to online many times, but have never actually met in person. These kinds of meetings/conversations are one of my favorite aspects of GDC so far (along with the sessions themselves).

The Indie Game Summit ended with the “Indie Gamemaker Rant!” This is a series of five-minute rants by prominent individuals in the indie game community such as Robin Hunicke, Randy Smith, Adam Saltsman, and about eight or nine more speakers. As with any ensemble session, it was a mix of great and not-so-great. One ranter talked about her game’s demise and eventual completion, showed a clip of her game, and then a slight plug for more funding/publishing which, indie or not, seemed in poor taste. Then there were the rants by Robin Hunicke and Brandon Boyer. Hunicke ranted about the completely lack of diversity in the game industry, both lamenting it and preaching to the audience to compose their teams of more varied types of individuals. The rant was passionate, true, and completely necessary and I really hope people took something away from it. Brandon Boyer’s rant was about sorry state of the game press which, yes, we all know and acknowledge, but more important Boyer ranted on the unnecessary amount of snark in the press (and community as a whole). It was an earnest, heart-felt rant that everyone in the industry, press or not, should heed.

And, with that, Day 2 of GDC and the end of the Summits & Tutorials section of the conference game to an end. The rest of the day was occupied with eating and partying. Here are some awful pictures of Gamma IV (which I will hopefully write about in further detail later).

Also check out my totally rad dinner:

GDC 2010 – Day 3

Being from the Central Time Zone, I’m really digging the fact that I actually am waking up early by local standards throughout the week. My morning office consists of a couch and table in the back of a hotel that I’m not staying at:

My plan for the day was to attend the Game Design Workshop since, well, I am a game designer, so it seemed to fit. After a couple hours of correspondence and writing I met up with Scott and Tim and we all walked all scrawny nerd pack-like over to Moscone North. After getting lost once or twice, I actually successfully ended up in the Game Design Workshop and took my seat near the pack because new people scare me.

Then I got kicked out because media badges weren’t allowed.

Since I actually planned out my schedule for the week well and didn’t rely on my normal amount of organized disorganization, I actually had an entire day of Indie/Serious Game Summit sessions lined up throughout the day. The first of these sessions was the Indie Game Summit kick-off lecture by Ron Carmel: “Indies and Publishers: Fixing a System That Never Worked.” This is the kind of topic that has been coming from game developers and publishers of various sizes over the last few years but the primary focus of Carmel’s talk was how the newly-proposed Indie Fund could potentially fix the publishing system for smaller, digitally-distributed games. The talk wasn’t anything particularly new or insightful (especially since the Indie Fund had been announced well prior to the lecture), but it was the perfect tonal kickoff for the summit.

The lecture immediately preceding Carmel’s was given by the indie-famous Cactus whose hyper-prolific development habits have yielded several gems of games over the year (including Tuning, which is a finalist in the IGF awards this year). Cactus delivered the kind of message which more indies should be giving and more developers (as a whole) should hear: imbue your own sense of style and character into your games with little regard to design conventions. Cactus also played one of the best scenes of any David Lynch movie by putting the Lost Highway party scene on display for the entire room. So, you know, props for that. This talk was my first attempt at live-writing up a lecture and, as a result, it has a bunch of grammatical and tonal oddities (I’m pretty sure I switch between two or three tenses at random), but it was a fun first one. The write-up, like all my other material is at my development journal.

The new couple of hours were a lot more subdued. Not being used to this whole sort of thing, I quickly discovered the limitations of my MacBook’s batteries and the lack of any real area for people to just sit down and charge/use their laptops. There is always the press lounge, but for some reason the lounge is in a tiny, incredibly crowded room with a dearth of seating available. As a result, we asked for directions and for some reason the GDC photographers felt this should be in the GDC 2010 gallery (check out my rad flip-flops; they’re so floppin’):

The next series of talks that we attended were all focused on the more social aspects of game development; the first of which was a talk on marketing and PR (“open development”) by John Graham of Wolfire Games. I went into this talk incredibly skeptical regarding the validity of “good marketing” claims by a company who has yet to actually release a game. It seemed, to me, that a well-marketed game is one which does well once it has been released. Graham, however, made a very compelling and interesting case for the way that Wolfire is handling the marketing of Overgrowth (their in-development game). Graham promoted being open, making friends, and staying in contact with their personal game’s community as well as the large game development/game-playing community as a whole, but the real take-away from the talk that Graham didn’t explicitly mention was the benefit of being completely earnest and honest throughout the development process. No one will know whether the Wolfire marketing style will yield long-term success or not (and how much it takes away from active development time), but, for now, it appears to be treating them well.

The next major session of interest was the Independent Game Summit keynote from Tiger Style’s Randy Smith (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor). I already did a somewhat lengthy write-up of his talk, but I’m still not entirely sure what I thought about it. Smith seemed to add an unnecessarily divergent meaning to what designers/gamers typically refer to as “depth” in a game by conflating “depth” with “meaningful content” rather than the traditionally-used definition of mechanical depth. I appreciated his focus on immediacy/”depth” and the importance of utilizing the strengths of a platform like the iPhone. What I wasn’t as much of a fan of was the exceptional amount of time that Smith spent on analyzing his case study games; both Spelunky and Captain Forever were each talked about for about ten minutes each. While both of these games are fantastic and deserving of analysis, it’s not something I would expect in a keynote speech (nor would I expect to hear Smith’s ideas for improving those games). Smith’s incredibly random shot at mainstream games by indicating his apathy for Uncharted 2 (which he admits is an incredibly tuned, polished, and iterated-upon design) and following it up with the joy of being indie. Not only is this not a bad message to deliver — especially at the Independent Games Summit — but burying that message in the last five minutes of a speech came off entirely as a crowd pleasing oration trick rather than a meaningful point.

I also discovered that Randy Smith is, like me, an incredibly fast and energetic talker which not only makes live-writing his speech difficult but makes me have sympathy for everyone that has to listen to me on a daily basis.

The rest of the night was filled with the enormous, multi-course dinner followed by the group of us ending up at a Mexican restaurant. I also drank my first margarita. So that was fun. And salty. And delicious.