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GDC Report – Friday


15 Games in 15 Years

This was a different sort of game design lecture. The speaker has a tradition of designing one game a year for his two kids, and these games never see any kind of commercial release. I won’t go into all 15 games, but here are some takeaways.

Understand your design goals when creating a game. Not every game needs to have a “simple to learn, hard to master, engaging and hours of entertainment” kind of goal. Some can be explicitly designed for purposes of “distract a 3-year old,” “teach the alphabet,” or even “give me an excuse to buy this awesome monster statue.” Be honest about your goals!

The pieces matter. Everyone says “just give me gameplay, I don’t care about pieces or graphics!” They lie. Stuff is fun, it captures the attention and the imagination. Cool pieces can’t make a terrible game great, but they can make a decent game great.

Likewise, story matters! A splash of narrative can make it easier to understand the gameplay specifics, and makes the whole game more engaging. People want to know what they’re accomplishing by playing the game!

Give your pieces personality, too. Just giving a piece a name and a catch phrase can help the player understand its personality, and also its game function. (You tied the game function into the personality, right?)

Cannibalize other toys and games to make your own. Plenty of games give you a cheap source of square tiles (Scrabble, Carcassonne), ships and tokens (Twilight Imperium) or figures (Heroscape). Steal them!

We’ve heard it before, and here it is again: iterate! Make a prototype, then improve on it! Especially when you’re making personal, non-commercial games, you can iterate for months and years on an idea. Keep tweaking!

If you have a mechanic you’re not sure about, put it on a character. Then, players can choose whether they want to use that mechanic or not. He gave an example of a ‘Witch’ piece which could start a 30 second timer, causing the current player to lose their turn. The Witch was created to combat a friend of his with analysis paralysis, who took forever to make a move. When that friend comes by, the Witch comes out; otherwise, she might not be chosen.

Use Excel to track complex games. When you’ve got a lot of numbers, you want to see them all in one place and neatly organized.

Having no randomness to a game makes it slow. No matter what designs he tried, the result was always the same: no randomness = slow and analytical.

Balancing is easier if the game automatically balances itself. An example is Puerto Rico; any role that doesn’t get chosen gets a bonus token on it each round. Hypothetically, the designers could create a terrible role, even one harmful to the player, and it would eventually get chosen due to the accumulation of bonus tokens.

3D printing is exciting! Who knows what new games we could make?

Personal games are a unique experience. They’re a direct reflection of you, and the only people you have to impress are the ones closest to you. Think long-term, no deadline, no stress, just enjoy the act of making a game.

The Story of Cave Story

This panel was pretty good, but nothing really surprising. Pixel worked hard, put a lot of his own creativity into his game, and got a great result.

The most interesting fact was that the game was nearly done – Pixel had done two years of work – then he completely scrapped it and started over because it just wasn’t working right.

Audio data is massive, but composing in MIDI has its own limitations. I think I heard him say that his process was to record a sound or music on a microphone, then look at the waveform and try to get close to recreating it with MIDI notes. Hopefully getting the variety of real sounds and the size-savings of MIDI.

Pixel identified five elements of a game:

  • Visuals
  • Interactivity
  • SFX
  • BGM
  • Story

Early stages should be simple and linear, then you can expand the complexity of the game once the player understands it.

Boss battles should try to outguess the player – make it seem like the boss is anticipating their movements.

Sound effects are useful. They’re cheap and easy to implement, and create a very responsive scene. You don’t need to animate something if you can use a sound effect to convey it instead. (Good example: you approach a door. The screen fades out, you hear the creak of a door opening, then the screen fades in on the next room.)

Music changes the impact of the visuals without needing to tweak the visuals at all. Cave Story has an example of this: early on you visit a village, with soft, welcoming music. Later on, after a tragedy, you return to the village, and empty, ominous music plays. Same visuals, but perfectly conveys the changing mood of the story.

Pixel talked about why the main character has amnesia – it helps the player be the main character, and creates a connection. I agree, but considering all the game characters who have amnesia at the start of their adventure, I think it’s time we buy our heroes some helmets.

Players don’t like long and forced tutorials. Design starting levels that encourage exploration and trying things out, and let the player feel like their cleverness helped them overcome the problem themselves.

Charles Black

No, Charles wasn’t a panel, but he’s a friend of mine from college. We caught up for a while, had lunch together, then went down to the Expo Floor.

Speaking of which, the expo floor was decent, but nothing really amazing. Conventions don’t really wow me anymore. If you want a full report of the expo floor, I’ll just say that there were a lot of companies there showing off a lot of shiny tech. There were also a lot of indie developers, a lot of people selling monetization plans for Facebook, and a few slot machine companies in attendance.

While we were wandering the expo floor, Charles and I got to talking about programming. I’ve been doing some basic Unity work, but I’m still baffled by programming – how to start a program, how to know what code to write, what all the different aspects of programming are. More specifically, I’ve always been confused by middleware – like, when I buy a license for Havok physics, what exactly am I buying? How do I use that? They keep saying I can just plug it into my games, but I looked at my computer and it didn’t have a Havok plug socket.

Charles was totally patient, and helped me grasp a lot of concepts. Like, I generally had an idea of what a language is, but he helped me understand why a language is. Same with classes, libraries, engines, APIs, and variables. It helped me get a lot more confidence that awesome coding is something that I could eventually learn how to do.

Classic Game Postmortem: Raid on Bungeling Bay

I only caught the first half of Will Wright’s look back at Bungeling Bay, but there were some interesting elements. It really called back to the idea of game design by accidents, and playing to your own personality. Will wanted to do a big game, and he wanted to do something with helicopters. He worked out some interesting tricks with his computer, and actually making it into a game came later.

Bungeling Bay is also notable for giving birth to SimCity, as Wright realized that he was often having more fun making islands and building cities than playing the game.

It was also interesting to learn about the depth of the game’s subsystems – that resources appear in the ocean, and boats pick them up, then tanks take them to factories, then the factories repair things you’ve damaged in a certain order. The world has a pretty involved economic system, but the player doesn’t need to know anything about it to enjoy the game.

From Student to Start-Up: Case Studies

I wanted to catch the last panel of the Game Career Seminar. It was pretty much what I expected: a lot of people looking for that golden nugget of advice on how to break in, and the presenters pretty much reiterating “Work hard, get your foot in the door, make stuff.” Cliff Bleszinski pretty much said it directly – “You’re all thinking that there’s just this one thing, one secret where if you can figure it out, your whole future will make sense. I just don’t have that answer, and I wish I did.”

The End!

And with that, it was the end of my GDC adventure, time to put away my badge and head home. It was definitely worth it – I made a lot of contacts, and drew a lot of inspiration. Coming out of the conference, thought, the weight of the work I need to do still hit me pretty heavily. Inspiration, research, and making mental connections are all incredibly important, but I really need to just get off my duff and start making something!

Well, I’ve taken a few steps in that direction. The first step has been to move my computer upstairs so I can have a standing desk. (I recommend it.) The other steps, well, they’ll be in the next few posts.

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