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GDC Report – Wednesday

Wednesday

Keynote – Satoru Iwata & Reggie Fils-Amie, Nintendo

The keynote was decent, but not exactly mind-blowing. Iwata’s sections were pretty much “I’ve been doing games for a while.”

Reggie’s sections were pretty much shills for the 3DS. Basically lecturing on how the 3DS was going to revolutionize gaming forever. I’ll post my thoughts on the 3DS later, but it was a pretty short-sighted keynote, considering that the majority of your audience of game developers has played games on and developed for mobile devices and web browsers.

Overall, it wasn’t really inspiring. I feel like a keynote should raise awareness, bring up issues – be something that people are talking about for the rest of the conference. In that sense, it makes the conference run smoothly, by giving the attendees common ground for conversations. This keynote wasn’t really thought-provoking…more of a press conference, really.

Game Works of Yu Suzuki

I left this one. In retrospect, I didn’t realize that they had translation earpieces available, but I was picking up enough Japanese to realize that it was a pretty boring, Japanese-style interview. As in,

“Is it true that Space Harrier originally had a plane, but then you put a person in?”

“Yes, we did a test with a plane, and it did better when we put a person in.”

“Ah, I see.”

Not exactly hard-hitting journalism. Some podcasts I’ve listened to said it was a great panel, but I don’t regret leaving, because it let me catch the panel on Dynamics, which I heard people talking about for the rest of the con.

I missed the beginning, but here are the notes I caught.

You want to choose how your story is told. It can be strict, forcing the player into a specific experience, or loose, allowing the player to be creative and find their own experience. Either method can work, but it definitely changes the theme of the game.

Changing the fiction of the game can change the meaning and dynamics, even if the mechanics don’t change. Clint gave the example of making Tetris about shuttling trains off to a concentration camp. When completing lines means killing innocent people, does it change the meaning of the game? Does it change your playstyle?

Meaning is:

Synthesis: A combination of players’ views. Meaning comes from multiple impressions across the course of the game.

Rigorous: The stronger the concern about the outcome, the more meaning.

Instantial: You can’t talk about the meaning of a game, but you can talk about the meaning of an instance of the game. That is to say, I can’t exactly say “Mass Effect 2 means this” but I can say “my playthrough of Mass Effect 2 meant this to me.

…you know, I don’t really like my writeup of this panel. I think there was a lot of terminology I didn’t completely grasp, and I’m probably using wrong.

GDC Microtalks

One hour, ten speakers, about five minutes each. How did it go?

Richard Lemarchand

Introduced the panel. I should read Kill Screen, and play Sleep is Death and In a Star-Filled Sky. (The advertising is working!)

Michael John

Is the father of computer games computers, or games? Michael argues it’s computers. Computers have given us an expression of games that games could not have created alone.

All games are played, not all play is games.

Kids should code. All kids should try making computer games. He recommends Scratch to start.

Jamin Warren

We need a language around gaming. A lexicon.

We have experiences in games, but if we don’t share them, they disappear. Don’t keep your experiences to yourself. Share them.

Naomi Clark

The Fantasy of Labor: Keep playing, keep buying, keep grinding. It will pay off. Is this true? Have games led us astray?

David Jaffe

Getting into a console game takes too damn long. We’re not talking about the tutorial; we’re talking about system boot, logo, select the game, load, logo, logo, logo, press start, loading, accept legal agreement, loading, go. When I put a disc in that I’ve already played, just skip all that and start right from my most recent save.

This is why people are going to the DS and iPhone for gaming; you can get gaming and have a meaningful experience in 20-30 seconds.

Colleen Macklin

Playtest.

Look at Farmville and Minecraft, games which are in a state of perpetual playtesting.

More playtesting = better games.

Asi Burak

Text adventures were great. We had more direct control, more freedom, and less cutscenes.

What happened? When did we decide that we wanted to emulate movies?

Can we change the direction games are headed?

Jason Rohrer

My notes aren’t great for this one.

Jason condemned thoughtful, artsy games for being boring. He looked to other modern games that can keep you focused for 8 hours at a time.

He noted games where there’s survival value in staying focused – where paying attention helps you succeed.

Brandon Boyer

Games help us explore our dreamscapes. We should remind people why they used to play, and how they could get lost in their own imagination.

Brenda Brathwaite

Everything can be a game. If you can play it, it will become a game.

Pro Guitar in Rock Band 3

When making design decisions, always go back to the One Question about your game.

For Guitar Hero, this was “Is this Rock?”

For Rock Band, this was “Is this an authentic band experience?”

They narrowed down their scope by choosing a definite target: Hard/Expert Rock Band players with no previous guitar experience. They wanted to teach these players the ‘campfire versions’ of their favorite songs, and let them graduate to the real versions at their own pace.

They spent 3 months on early concepts, 7 months prototyping, and 13 months in production.

Concepts: They had to narrow down a massive space of possibilities to a few possible ideas. What information did they want to convey first? How realistic would it be? What compromises were they willing to make?

Prototyping: Harmonix used a small strike team to prototype. The designers are also the implementers; if you have an idea, you have to figure out how to make it real.

They didn’t worry about hardware. They figured they’d make the feature, then figure out how to create the hardware they needed later.

They essentially created a new way of noting music; it’s not tabs, musical notation, or chord charts. Pretty impressive!

They found an issue when they tested; people said it was interesting, engaging, immersive, but not fun. They thought about it, but realized that for Rock Band, fun was what they needed to be testing for.

Suggestions from the prototyping phase:

  • Reduce your team size.
  • If an idea keeps coming up, even if it sounds stupid, you need to try it! It’s stuck in everyone’s head for a reason.
  • Don’t skimp on the low-hanging fruit. It’s tempting to say “we’re short on time, and we know how we’ll do X. We’ll do it later.” But putting those easy features in place can give you more insight into how the hard features can work.

– You can’t make a good design decision just by debating it. Make prototypes!

Production: This took much longer than expected. Their team expanded, and they became more reliant on external resources. The actual Pro Guitars were slow to be manufactured, and the final RB3 song list was finalized fairly late.

To get back on track:

  • Refocus on your target market. Pro Guitar is for new guitar players. Prioritize your features based on that market.
  • Switch to short-term deadlines. Keep people focused on iterating in the short-term, and quickly.
  • Use placeholder content for rapid development. Jury-rig whatever you need to get your ideas tested.

The Failure Workshop

Stories of the games that failed, and what you can learn from the attempts.

Robot and the Cities that Built Him

Went 6 months before doing a gameplay prototype, then realized that despite all the polish, the gameplay just wasn’t fun.

No amount of theming will save a bad idea.

Also, trying to live up to a previous game is paralyzing. Let go of your expectations for yourself.

Cat Mouse Foosball

George Fan designed a game, did some sketches, and thought it would be amazingly fun. When he prototyped it, he found that it just wasn’t any good. There was a total disconnect between how he thought it would play, and how it worked.

The difference between artists and designers:

Illustration takes place primarily in the mind. You imagine the total image you want, then make it.

Design can’t possibly imagine all the aspects of gameplay and the interactions between the systems. You can’t just think up good gameplay, you have to try it out!

Start prototyping as soon as you can!

Off-Road Velociraptor Safari HD

First off, calling it HD was a mistake. It builds a particular set of expectations. ‘Remix’ might have been more accurate.

They thought that doing an updated version of an old game would be easy, but it was a grind. Don’t confuse comfort with happiness – you may know how to improve these textures and remake these models, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be fun.

They lost sight of “games should be fun.” The game stopped being made for the players, and started being made for other purposes, to keep up with other games, to show off, etc.

Elemental

Unlike the other games on the list, Stardock actually released Elemental.

They had a small-company structure, and when they increased the size of their team, they didn’t improve the structure. What works for 7 doesn’t work for 25.

It’s hard for a small studio to swallow the need to pay for a full-time producer. He’s not contributing, making art or code! What good is he? Well, you need someone objective to keep the project in line, and to have no personal involvement in any of the production. You need someone who can kill those unnecessary features.

Come down hard on scope creep. Keep your design focused, and don’t let people add new features without the producer’s say.

Rock Climbing Game

Chris Hecker kept adding more and more systems to the game: body physics, fatigue calculations, balance calculators…eventually, he realized that he was scared of the game’s design. He was retreating into his comfort zone – technical systems – as a way of avoiding the issue that he didn’t have a game yet.

NBA Jam Postmortem

How did they make such a strong sequel to NBA Jam? He cited the rule of thirds:

1/3 the same. Give the fans the things they remember.

1/3 improved. The same, but better. Don’t mess with the formula, but improve it.

1/3 new. Give them new features and ideas, but don’t violate the spirit of your source material.

Always stay true to your source material! In their case, they chose a specific example – the first arcade cabinet of NBA Jam – and based all their decisions on how to recreate that feeling.

On Voice Actors: Help them get into character. He referenced that the voice of NBA Jam had this really exuberant Scottie Pippin poster that he tacked up in the recording booth, and it helped him drop into the NBA Jam voice instantly. Think about props, posters, concept art, and lighting that you can use to get your voices in the zone as quickly as possible.

Overall, find your fun as quickly as possible. Identify your core gameplay, and make it shine.

Independent Game Festival Awards

Lots of good games I need to check out. Fract, Amnesia, Nidhogg, Desktop Dungeons, Bastion, Dream Machine, B.U.T.T.O.N., ByteJacker, Limbo, GameDevStory. I’m going to be busy!

Game Developer’s Choice Awards

Red Dead Redemption is game of the year! It wouldn’t have been my choice, but there’s no denying that it’s a great game.

Double Fine revealed their next game, Trenched. The trailer doesn’t do a lot for it; it’s a mech shooter. If there’s a cool twist, I didn’t see it in the footage they showed.

Gamespy Party

Met with a friend from UCI, Charles Black, and got into the Gamespy party. Talked to some people, exchanged some business cards. It was fun, although the food and the drinks both ended far too quickly. What’s up with that?

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