Attending GDC requires you to make wagers with your time. Every day, you examine the schedule, look over the potentially interesting discussions on the itinerary, and then place a bet on which ones will pay off with bucketfuls of steaming hot insight. The stakes feel pretty high, as you can only hit four, maybe five sessions each day, so you don't have that many chips to play. I placed a couple bad bets today, by which I mean that I spent an hour or two bored out of my mind in an Indie Games Summit conference hall that was inexplicably kept at sub-Siberian temperatures. Please, lords of the IGS, let there never again be a talk on the terrible evils of the big-studio business model or the transcendent virtues of a small team. We GET IT.
Not everything at this show is genius, but if you're going to praise GDC for the unrehearsed atmosphere, you've got to accept the rough edges. And hey, there were still plenty of winning bets today. I ducked out of a watching-paint-dry session and crashed Jason Rohrer's talk about his new DS game, Diamond Trust Of London, which is set to release later this year. The game is about the seamy business of diamond trading in Angola.
Rohrer said that he wanted to create a resource-based strategy game because he enjoys board games like Settlers Of Catan. But he also asked himself a natural question: "Why not just make a board game?" So he decided to figure out what board games couldn't do so well and make a video game that overcame those shortcomings. Sort of the tail wagging the dog, but it's an interesting problem.
Rohrer decided that board games weren't that good at letting players secretly acquire knowledge about their opponents. His example was Stratego—in that game, the "spy" piece can't actually spy. You can't get any information about your opponents' piece placement without them knowing about it. You'd have to sneak around to their side of the board when they weren't looking, otherwise known as "being a cheating dick." But in a video-game version of Stratego, with each person playing on their own screen, a spying rule would be simple.
Rohrer liked this dynamic, which he termed "I know what you know, but you don't know that I know what you know." He built the concept into a pitch for his publisher, Majesco. The idea: A DS game about adultery, in which a cheating husband (or wife) protagonist tries to glean information about his spouse, who is ALSO cheating, without exposing his own infidelities. I would love to play this game, but Majesco didn't want to publish it. So Rohrer reworked the idea into a game about African diamond trading. To his surprise, Majesco accepted the blood-diamond concept (sans blood), and the game is almost finished. Rohrer demonstrated a build onstage, and the heady blend of cutthroat finance, subterfuge, and intuition made the game look like a combination between Catan and the popular nerd party game Mafia (a.k.a. Werewolf). In other words, awesome.
In a different session, developer Alec Holowka talked about the importance of "tasty, tasty context." Holowka criticized the school of thought that maintains that games are all about the mechanics—in essence, that with all of the art and story removed (or changed), Super Mario Bros. would still be essentially the same game. Holowka thinks this is hogwash—"People don't think about boxes jumping on other boxes," he said, "the context matters." He pointed to a scene in Final Fantasy VI in which the character Celes is gathering fish on the beach for a dying old man. Holowka noted that "the gameplay is terrible" if considered on its own, "but your actions are really meaningful" by virtue of the moving milieu provided by the story.
Holowka suggested that a fruitful way to assess games is to look at the interactions between all the media—text, film, game, etc.—that exist in a given work. He supports a "holistic" point of view that doesn't break a game into its graphics/audio/writing/gameplay components to evaluate each individually. Look at the whole apple. I couldn't agree more.
My final winner of the day: A post-mortem from Eddy Boxerman and Andy Neal, the guys who made Osmos, a crackerjack indie game from last fall. (Here's the A.V. Club review.) Boxerman said that the most difficult work came in figuring out how the first five minutes of the game would play out. The premise of Osmos is not so complicated—you're a mote who can eat smaller motes, but you have to eject mass (and therefore shrink) to move around.
Just because the gist of an idea can be explained in a single sentence, though, doesn't mean it comes across on screen. In early drafts of the game, Boxerman and Neal had a paragraph of text explaining the game and its controls, but they found that players would ignore that. "People would just float around and start clicking. They thought they were shooting bullets, not ejecting mass." So players gave up and moved on to something else. The first five minutes—the first 30 seconds, really—were killing them.
The ultimate solution for Boxerman was to ditch most of the tutorial text and replace the opening screen with nothing but a statement of Newton's third law (about actions and reactions). They found that by just establishing the "flavor" of the game—a thinky physics thing—rather than defining specific controls, people were more willing to experiment. When testers played this version for the first time, Boxerman said, the premise clicked: "We'd get an 'ohhhhh' about a minute in, with a characteristic head nod." That's one thing I love about the top-tier indie games: They're full of those epiphanies, and that sensation of the world clicking into place never gets old.
Odds and ends:
- I skipped Sony's press conference unveiling their new neon-tipped phallus motion controller, now known as the PlayStation Move. I apologize if you came here looking for a full rundown. Here are my quick thoughts: The PlayStation Move is an incredible breakthrough. Imagine, if you will, a somewhat better Wiimote, coming only four years after the advent of the Wii. It will revolutionize games forever, and for years after that. It is sure to prompt a renaissance of artistry and ideas the likes of which has never been seen in the civilized world.
- The Experimental Gameplay Session, typically a much-anticipated showcase of bleeding-edge game concepts, was canceled this year for lack of participation from developers. That stinks. It was always a highlight of the show. A.V. Club games contributor Gus Mastrapa had an interesting theory: Many developers had seen their ideas poached from the EGS and made into cheap copycat Flash games, so maybe game makers are now wary of showing their groundbreaking ideas off too early. This is all nothing more than speculation, of course, but I wonder if there's something to the theory. It fits with the slightly more corporate feel that the indie festivities have at this year's GDC. The community is still thriving, but I also get a sense that people are looking out for number one.
- That picture at the top is John Romero's business card. It is made of metal, and it's heavy. What a badass!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- David and I are merging our updates into one post today, for reasons that are too boring to explain. Here comes his report…
Look out Gamestop, makers of AAA games, and the gaming press at large: If many of the indie-game makers at this year’s GDC had their way—or their unwavering predictions lobbed out today came true—you’d all be but flecks of ash in a smoldering crater that people would be so indifferent towards they’d neglect to even give it a name, or maybe scare their kids by threatening to make them spend a night inside its confines molded by the blackest hate imaginable. Although the vitriol naturally gushed out nastiest and in the most directions near day’s end during the second annual Indie Game-Maker Rant, many of the gripes aired by the dozen or so indie developers on the topics of their choosing were fairly predictable. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, assuming you’re the sort of person who thinks an hour-long bitchfest sounds like a good time, but lashing out against major game companies seems besides the point and needlessly bitter.
Capybara Games’ Nathan Vella snarled about the day-to-day hassles of working for what he deems mainstream game companies (competition and a non-stop risk of getting shit on your face) as opposed to the day-to-day hassles of working on indie games (having a beard and a non-stop risk of getting presents). Of course, Vella was being ironic, but whoever said Gears Of War and Critter Crunch were in direct competition in the first place? Not everyone can agree about the problems facing the game industry, and they probably don’t even matter to the average gamer, but it’s worth pointing out that not long after Vella’s slides depicting a bearded game-maker, Thatgamecompany’s Robin Hunicke launched a five-minute PowerPoint diatribe on game-making’s need for more diversity. Ryan O’Donnell, formerly of 1UP and now of Area 5 Media, made a good point while railing against game writers (or "termites," as he called them): “Treat games equally. They’re all competing for the same thing: our time.” And for that matter, indie game-makers could stand to remember that big-budget game-makers share their love for games.
Semi Secret Software knows this. As its blunt Canabalt post-mortem demonstrated, there’s room for indies to show love and even draw inspiration from their supposed wretched enemies. Eric Johnson name-checked District 9, cinematic platformer Another World, and Half Life as heavily influencing the game’s minimalistic and bleak art style as well as its fluid animation. There was also a heavy helping of programmer jargon so inside baseball that it seemed only to exist to stall for time while creator Adam Saltsman worked feverishly on a game based on the suggestion of an attendee’s favorite genre. Nineteen minutes after the talk began, Saltsman unveiled the new Platformer I Guess to espouse the virtues of rapid prototyping: employing minimal planning to get a game up and playable as soon as possible so you can catch bugs earlier, although it’s doubtful Saltsman intentionally made it impossible to descend a staircase in his game just to prove a point. (If you haven’t tried Canabalt and are still on the fence, check out our Sawbuck review of it.)
Now, it’s incredibly lazy to draw parallels from game-making to other spheres of the entertainment world like music and movies, but game-making certainly has a place in any discussion about creativity. Today I Die’s Daniel Benmergui chronicled the how increasingly disheartened he felt while pulling together the strange, self-described “art game.” He gave up a number of times before finally realizing his initial takes on the game were far too ambitious. “Sometimes your ideas are bigger than yourself,” he said. “Sacrifice is okay—be prepared to let go.” All his theories on creativity rang true, and could easily apply to writing songs and screenplays. Benmergui, though, confessed to being unsure what to talk about in the panel he co-chaired with Messhof, and took the topic of Control Inspiration to instead be a freeform meditation on creativity itself.
And that was totally fine, as Messhof let everyone behind the curtain plenty for a messy but intriguing look during his talk. “There’s no real structure to this,” he warned shortly after beginning by showing a collection of his earliest games, which ranged from a Joust clone to another he deemed “had no soul” and “was just a series of challenges.” Messhof came to strive for simplicity as a result, but wanting to strive off predictability by injecting elements of randomness, like the warped music in Flywrench. Sometimes it can come via the keyboard controls, which he thinks is intrinsically weird—akin to robots learning to walk and operate under duress. He then joked that his games should come with custom controllers, and showed a video of what very well could be the future of joysticks for helicopter games:
While Messhof and Benmergui each had pretty different takes on the session, it was by far the day’s most interesting talk. During the Q&A afterwards, Benmergui lobbed away a question about his haircut, by snidely noting he only answers that question every six months, has to wait another five months to honor that tradition. Benmergui especially was friendly during his presentation, giving out his e-mail at the end to all attendees should they hit a speed bump in developing their own games. And, it should be noted, that that question is nothing compared to the ones issued by the moderator during a session on game art earlier in the day. John was right to leave, but I stuck around to hear the answers to questions like “what’s your most inspirational moment?” or “what’s your favorite chemical?” Whatever answers you’re thinking in your head right now are, at minimum, a thousand times more interesting than that entire session. As John said yesterday, GDC comes in waves, which bodes well for the coming days.