March 13, 2007
For me this year’s GDC was different from previous years, because my attention these days is so oriented towards business and funding. As a result I made the tradeoff to skip many potentially interesting design talks, in order to make room for lots of hallway conversations, meetings, business-track lectures, cruising the expo booths for useful middleware, and catching up with friends and colleagues.
I’ll start with the (sadly) long list of talks I missed: the Game Design Challenge: Needle-and-Thread, Chaim Gingold on Spore‘s Magic Crayons, Clint Hocking’s talk on Exploration From Systems to Spaces to Self, Raph Koster’s talk on Web 2.0 meets games, the star-studded gameshow Metagame: Battle of Videogame Smarts, the Sony keynote and the subsequent talk on Sony’s new indie-ish game Little Big Planet. I missed over half of the Indie Game Summit including Jon Blow’s Braid talk which sounded great, Eric Z’s talk and the final panel; much of the Casual Games Summit and most of the Serious Games Summit (note, all three summits were happening at the same time in different buildings, so no one person could see them all.) I also missed Nuances of Design: An Experiment in Visceral Communication, where everyone in the audience use laptops to simultaneously play the games being discussed, Sharing Control, about user-created content, and the big award ceremony.
On to what I did see, beginning with the interactive story-related talks, specifically Warren Spector (1 2 3) and Ernest Adams. Spector (recently blogged here), lecturing to a massively packed hall, opined about how if games and stories could be combined well, it would result in games with artistic and cultural importance, games that would matter. He put up inspirational quotes from Janet Murray from First Person, quotes from our Atlantic article and Susan Sontag. He bemoaned that today’s games, his included, don’t do a good job creating interactive story experiences — unless you’re happy with only linear stories. He struggled to point out ways forward, ultimately only vaguely alluding to a few ideas he and his team are working on, and that procedural approaches such as our work on Façade (though only “marginally successful” so far) are worth keeping an eye on. Spector also hoped academic research would make some progress here, somehow (no talk of how to fund this research, for example). Overall, the effect of the talk was to make the audience a bit restless and wanting more. … Anyhow, I generally agreed with everything Spector said, and am not surprised no hints of relevatory solutions were offered. I do appreciate a major game designer pushing for better interactive story and proselytizing the need for it, in a thoughtful way.
Adams, lecturing to a much smaller but still packed room in the last hour of the conference, talked about how games could be broadened by simply removing one of their key characteristics: challenge. Imagine building goal-less interactive experiences, such as virtual worlds where you could explore and be a tourist. (He feels Second Life doesn’t fit the bill, since it’s mostly mediocre user-created content, and too weird of a place to want to explore.) At the end of the talk he also stated something to effect of (this isn’t a direct quote), “don’t let anyone tell you what a true interactive story must have… it can be composed of a variety of set of characteristics, if it satisfies you… if you’re happy without agency, that’s perfectly fine”. It was a sort of interesting final comment; I interpret it that Adams believes that design-only solutions to satisfying interactive story is out there, by re-shuffling existing approaches, without the need for (daunting) new technology. Perhaps he’s correct for experiences like virtual tourism.
I saw the first half of Miyamoto’s keynote, which was fun, then got tired of standing, so I scrolled left and levelled-out of there (see GameJew’s serenade of Miyamoto.) I hopped in and out of the “publisher’s rant”, positioned as a counterpoint to previous year’s developer’s rants; this year it seemed mild. I saw the last few minutes of the digital games canon, which was interesting for the reasons you all describe, but I particularly liked bumping into Ron Gilbert on the way out and chatting a bit. :-) Saw Kellee, Jenova and gang’s talk on their experience building their first commercial game, then I flOwed out to join the Sex in Games roundtable, a vertiable orgy of ideas and opinions. There I met the producer of Virtually Jenna, who was more interested to talk about my experience making Petz than Façade, ha.
Thinking back, the first presentation of the week I saw was Jeff Minter’s rambling talk about his work over the past 25+ years, including his amazing-looking new game, Space Giraffe. I briefly walked through the Indie Game Festival, not much caught my eye, unfortunately. More interesting was the always-entertaining Experimental Gameplay Workshop, including the results of this year’s (small) Indie Game Jam, themed on audio. A lively Finnish guy named Petri Purho of Kloonigames presented a series of hilarious games, culminating with The Truth About Game Development. Two commercial games in development, Crush and Portal, looked incredible. Less incredible was Rod Humble’s The Marriage (blogged here) — I love abstraction, but this game was so abstract it totally required Humble to explain what was going on as he operated it; to me it really seemed more of the beginning of a prototype.
I attended some of the day-long Dealmaking for Developers, various talks on raising money, the business of casual games, expanding the audience, and innovation in casual games. Near the end of the week I was briefly interviewed by Danny Ledonne for his documentary on SCMRPG!; I was pretty fried, hoarse and somewhat incoherent, but I look forward to seeing the film when he’s done.
One of favorite talks was Robin Hunicke’s analysis of the Sims franchise, applying the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) framework to it, and how they evolved the game design to appeal to the Nintendo Wii audience for MySims. They finally got rid of managing if your Sims need to pee! Thank goodness.
Michael and I gave a talk on the first day of the conference, about applying the Façade technology and design to serious games. While a bit dry with lots of technical details, it was well-attended and I think well-received.
Overall it was a fun week, simultaneously tiring and energizing. There were just enough small experimental and indie games scattered about, even if few can expect to generate revenue for their makers, to create a sense of vibrancy in the community. I felt a bit less doom-and-gloom than some felt in previous years. But that probably had as much to do with my non-stressed-out state going into the conference as anything else.
In total, the effect of GDC was to once again re-motivate me to push hard and do quality work, which is a good thing.