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GDC 08: Scattershots of Play -- Potential of Indie Games

3:28 PM on 02.18.2008 // Anthony Burch


What do you get when you put the creators behind flOw, Everyday Shooter, and various Scandanavian reality games in the same room with no strict discussion format? What happens when, equipped with their own individual topics of interest, they bounce ideas and theories off each other?

As I found out this morning, you get some pretty goddamned interesting discussion.

At "Scattershots of Play: the Potential of Indie Games," Pekko Koskinen, Jon Mak, and Kellee Santiago came together to -- as the title suggests -- share a few random, scattershot, but incredibly interesting thoughts on game design with not only the GDC attendees, but one another. 

What's the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic game rewards? What's input-output theory? Can games play users, rather than the other way around?

Hit the jump to get the gist of the whole thing. 

Kellee Santiago (flOw), Jon Mak (Everyday Shooter), and Pekko Koskinen each presented one Powerpoint presentation on a subject of personal interest to them. After each designer's slideshow was finished, the other two personalities chimed in with their thoughts and opinions on the subject. The whole thing felt pretty freeform and nonlinear, which led to some pretty interesting crossover discussion and individual rambling.

Santiago started off the whole event by presenting her problems with the lack of intrinsic rewards in gaming. Rather than enjoying the game for just being fun on its own, we now seem to measure the quality and price of a game by sheer length. Anyone who has ever been irritated by the innumerable complaints levelled toward Portal or Katamari Damacy that "they aren't long enough" can understand the gist of Santiago's argument: if we like a game so much that we replay it over and over, then why even bother complaining about its short initial length? 


To demonstrate her point, Santiago drew a comparison between Katamari Damacy and God of War II. Most all gamers would agree that both are quality titles, yet Katamari only costs $20 where God of War II costs $50. Why? God of War II has a longer singleplayer mode, and is therefore assumed to be of higher value by both reviewers and gamers. Santiago argues that there's something inherently wrong with failing to recognize the value of intrinsic game rewards -- in other words, something which is fun to play by its very nature like flOw or Geometry Wars or Katamari -- versus extrinsic rewards like the completion of a long singleplayer campaign, or achivements, or unlockables or what-have-you.

Jon Mak chimed in at this point, stating that memorability and thought-provocation should be just as important a means of defining value as replayability. He only played Gamma Bros for about twenty minutes, he said, but the memory of playing and the personal satisfaction he got from it (intrinsic reward) far outweighed the enjoyment he got from beating Metal Gear Solid and receiving the game-breaking infinite ammo bandana (extrinsic reward). 

Mak's comment seguewayed into his own presentation concerning what he refers to as "input-output theory." According to Mak, the "graphics versus gameplay" argument is an irrelevant one -- graphics are gameplay, and vice versa. The visual or aural output of an action amplifies the enjoyment of an input. By way of example, consider Guitar Hero: the actual input mechanic of hitting a button when the game tells you to just plain "sucks," in Mak's words. It's boring, and simplistic. Yet, jazz up the input with a specific and enjoyable output -- hit the button at the right time, and you get to play rock music -- and the whole experience becomes infinitely more enjoyable.

To further demonstrate this idea, he showed us a very early build of Everyday Shooter, boiled down to its most basic graphical components. Watching a little blue block flying around shooting red blocks was kind of boring to watch, and even more boring to input; regardless of how fun the actual control input was, there was no pleasurable output (or, to tie in with Santiago's idea, no immediate intrinsic reward). Once he jazzed the game up with music and interesting graphics however, the output made the input much more enjoyable. "Gameplay isn't just about rules," he said. "It's about feedback." Every action should be fun in its own way, and every input should have a pleasurable output. 


This moved nicely into Pekko Koskinen's talk, which (considering he hasn't been personally responsible for a popular indie videogame of his own) was a much more cerebral, hypothetical one. Koskinen says that while all other art forms are defined by their medium (film has to be a series of moving images or else it isn't film, music has to be an arrangement of notes and beats), games aren't restricted to such rules.

A game can include only text or only audio and still be a game; games are merely systems which we internalize and play through. Koskinen cited the fact that once you become familiar enough with the rules of chess, you don't even need a board and pieces to play it -- you can just play in your head. So, if games are systems, then Koskinen suggests the act of playing a videogame is nothing more than the constant attempt by the player to learn and adapt to the system of the game; this powerup does this, this strategy does that, etcetera. We internalize the game mechanics, and they reside in us as we play.

If this is true (and this is where things get weirder, but more interesting), then aren't games  just systems of human behavior? If we internalize a game's rules to the point where we understand them on our own, then hasn't the game personally altered our behavior? If that's the case, Koskinen says that game design is actually the art of creating fictional behavior in a player. The designer tells him what the rules of the world are, and the player alters his behavior to obey those rules. 

Koskinen then went even further and posited that, if games are systems of human behavior, then game designers should be able to design a player by sufficiently immersing him in the rules of that world and forcing him to play by them. I'll admit, it sounded more than a little creepy and fascist to hear a Finnish-accented game designer state that "ve can make ze player into ze product" as if this were a pleasurable, everyday thing, but he makes good points. Designers should be able to create fictional lenses through which players can reinterpret the world; on a larger scale, game designers are actually designing life, with the mechanics as a metaphor for living. Santiago agreed that the best games engage in a constant "conversation" with their players, as the rules of the world evolve and change and the player behavior adapts along with them. Mak nicely summarized the concept by stating that often times, "the game is playing you." 

After one audience question (Santiago is looking forward to cheaper digital distribution changing our value perception of "short" indie games), the discussion came to a close. Pretty heady stuff, yeah?

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