In an effort to prove that The AV Club's games writers can go to fancy events, too, Chris Dahlen and I are at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week. GDC has risen in prominence as other big industry events—especially E3—have faded a bit. Whereas GDC used to be just a nerdy confab for computer programmers, mainstream publishers now break news and unveil new games at the show. But the high point of GDC is the indie scene. The event hosts the Independent Games Festival, the gaming equivalent of Sundance, and it's the year's biggest gathering of video game auteurs.
The festival and the main exhibit floor don't open until Wednesday, though, so Chris and I are bouncing between the talks and demonstrations that fill the GDC schedule until then. I started with World of Goo co-creator Ron Carmel's crash course in producing a successful indie game, using Goo as a case study. Carmel's presentation was not so enlightening—his first piece of advice was to "make a good game"—but the crowd, mostly other developers, ate it up. There's a lot of camaraderie in the indie ranks, so as Carmel recapped Goo's meteoric success, the developers were content to bask in the reality that one of their own made good and now probably sleeps in a solid-gold mansion on a futon made of thousand-dollar bills.
My day really picked up in the afternoon, starting with a kickass presentation by Swedish developer Jonatan Soderstrom, better known as "Cactus." Rapid development is the new wave among solo developers, and Cactus has built a passionate following by self-publishing bizarre, hilarious games that he programs in a matter of hours. His past work includes Stench Mechanics, Fuck Space!, and SeizureDome ("a game that works kind of like Sumo wrestling, except you have a gun").
Cactus, a fidgety, muttonchopped character, chatted his way through an Adult Swim-esque slideshow explaining the process of four-hour game design. Amid the visual assault—one slide of which is pictured at the top of the post—Cactus offered some remarkably eloquent philosophies of game design. The way to make a compelling game is simple, he said: "Choose a subject you can sufficiently mimic. … Then add something that will make people choose your version over the original." At that, a crude, pixelated figure on the projection screen grew a huge pair of boobs. Dude knows how to please his audience.
Then came Crayon Physics Deluxe creator Petri Purho, who did a postmortem of his award-winning game. "Postmortem" isn't intended as a negative term, but at times, this one did feel like a wake. After Purho talked about the benefits of rapid prototyping for generating ideas (the original Crayon Physics was programmed in a week), he got into what went wrong, from an unabashed perfectionist's point of view.
Purho wanted Crayon Physics Deluxe to be a game that rewarded creativity, but couldn't figure a way to measure creativity in C++ algorithms. He had to leave it up to the players, many of whom solved CPD's puzzles with the laziest method possible—to Purho's dismay. As a result, he considered his hugely successful game something of a design failure. The darkest moment came when Purho talked about the countless Crayon Physics ripoffs that popped up months before his final build, sapping his enthusiasm for the project. Purho told the stunned crowd, "If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have worked on Crayon Physics."
I chatted with Purho for another half hour after his presentation, but since I'm too exhausted to transcribe the interview, I'm going to make a clumsy segue to Chris' Day 1 recap right … now.
I spent part of the morning checking out the virtual worlds. I was pretty interested in Second Life back when people were still talking about it, and in the general potential of online social experiences to take us to a three-dimensional, borderless, rich media world of the imagination. Far out, I thought, until I realized that Second Life's client was clunky, the performance lagged and that nothing's sadder than walking into somebody's virtual online business and discovering that you're the only customer standing there, and you weren't in the market for a hot pink synthetic penis anyway.
See, I couldn't go a graf on Second Life or virtual worlds without mentioning sex. But Raph Koster's kickoff speech for the Worlds in Motion summit took a much broader and saner approach to the potential of virtual worlds. Koster—a veteran MMO game designer who now heads Areae—got 15 minutes to give us a whirlwind tour of the state of virtual worlds, and how they're gaining ground commercially and culturally. Second Life streams congressional hearings. "Unfortunately, there was a large fluffy pink cat in the front row, which meant the Washington Post didn't take it seriously. But it was a big step for us."
Acceptance of virtual worlds is growing. Soon, Koster argued, we'll want virtual worlds on our phones, and maybe our toasters. What his admittedly brief talk couldn't do was pinpoint a "killer app" for virtual worlds, aside from the powerhouse but highly-structured worlds like World of Warcraft. Second Life blew through its hype cycle because everyone became aware of it, but very few could find a use for it. The one market that seems most successful—and granted, this is by nature a growth area— is kids' worlds like Club Penguin. And other corporations are catching on: McDonald's has a "Happy Meal" world, though as my four-year-old and I can attest, it's pretty dire.
I jumped through a few other talks in the course of the day, but by far the weirdest was Jane McGonigal's. McGonigal is in charge of Games Research & Development for the Institute for the Future. I don't know enough about the Institute for the Future to judge if it's some batshit crazy think tank; I just know that it's named the Institute for the Future. And McGonigal gave a talk about how games can reinvent the future. By her back-of-the-envelope calculation, she believes only 1 in 2,000 people have the chance to invent their own future—and they're all game designers, hackers, and technologists. And the talk listed all the ways that game designers are best-equipped to change and ultimately, save the world.
McGonigal's speech had the gung-ho we-are-our-own-tomorrow tone of a TED lecture, and on paper, some of her key concepts—"sustainable happiness," "programmable reality"—sound like something you'd read on the side of a Starbucks cup, and then throw away. But I enjoyed the parade of crazy enhanced-reality concepts she rattled off in her presentation. (To see the slides yourself, write firstname.lastname@example.org.)
To name a few:
- Top-Secret Dance Off: Studies show that two of the activities that bring the most pleasure to our brains are dancing with other people, and being humiliated. McGonigal couples the two with this game, which challenges players to wear a mask and dance like a fool, then post a clip online for others to … enjoy.
- Fold It: A puzzle game that challenges you to fold real proteins, for research.
- Galaxy Zoo: Another "do our research for us, and we'll make it fun" activity, this time about classifying galaxies.
- Judecca: A first-person shooter that uses a biometric headset that keys your ability to shoot a bunch of demons to how well you can concentrate.
- Ruby's Bequest: An "online global collaboration jam." Seems to involve going onto a website and writing a lot of stuff. Which I can tell you with confidence, is not a "fun" thing to do.
- Left 4 Dead: But now this is a fun game that actually teaches you something: Left 4 Dead's game mechanics effectively teach you how and why to collaborate with other people in a team setting, with zombies.
Around the time she challenged us to wonder what we'd do with our own personal satellite—you know, if the cost of putting a satellite in orbit went south of $1,000, and all of us could have one—I knew we'd hit a point of delicious absurdity that people come to conferences to drink in. And hearing that they can save the world gave this crowd of game designers a nice, upbeat takeaway for the end of day one.