GDC 08: Steven Spielberg’s Boom Blox (also, hands-on!)

Schindler’s List. Saving Private Ryan. Jaws. Boom Blox.

Yeah, when I first heard about Steven Spielberg’s upcoming EA game for the Wii I didn’t think it fit in with his accomplished line of work either.

But, I guess most of the GDC attendees were just as curious (and hopelessly optimistic) as I was, as the line for the Boom Blox seminar was the longest one I had seen all week. I also think the rumors circulating about Spielberg making an appearance also had something to do with it (sadly, he did not show up, what with a little movie called Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on his plate).

So, what did I think about the game after hearing EA Vice President Louis Castle talk about it for an hour? Did my confusion turn to excitement or wave its fist in anger? Hit the jump for a summary of the lecture and the ridiculously short hands-on I got with the title everyone is talking about.

The seminar started with a fascinating video of Steven Spielberg talking about Boom Blox. Interestingly (and something I was very curious about myself), the game is 100% his creation and idea. I thought, like most people, that maybe Spielberg was just putting his name on the thing and didn’t really have that much creative control. This was most definitely not the case.

The video showed Spielberg holding a Wiimote and talking about what kind of game he wanted to see. He loves the concept of breaking things in games and wanted to center an entire gameplay experience around that.

In a decision that proves Spielberg really is a creative genius, he kept talking about how he wanted to build Boom Blox from the ground up with the Wii in mind. A lot of games, he said, seem to rush the development and only offer what the Wii can do on a basic level. He wanted designers to create a game that expands on the Wii’s potential, providing players with an experience that goes beyond simple “waggle” mechanics.

One more thing I learned after seeing Spielberg wielding a Wiimote that was extra cool: he doesn’t use the wrist strap. Badass.

For anyone out there that doesn’t know what Boom Blox is, let me stop really quick and give you a truncated summary: In the game, little block-shaped creatures known as Blox inhabit the world. Each stage (of which there are many) involves getting these creatures to do certain tasks, such as having some Dog Blox chase Sheep Blox into a pen. To complete these challenges, a large amount of Jenga-like blocks are stacked around the stage. By using various tools (bombs, hoses, stones) the player needs to knock over the structures, in some cases causing chain reactions that will help achieve your goal.

It sounds a little bit complicated, but it really isn’t. In a nutshell, it is mostly all about blowing stuff up and watching things crumble and fall. Feats that are endlessly satisfying with the Wiimote (more on that later).

Once the video was over, Louis Castle talked about a lot of internal game development stuff that a lot of you might not have that much interest in. Okay, fine, you may be interested in it, but it was all way over my head and had trouble interpreting what he was talking about. Sorry.

A did catch a few cool tidbits about the game, though, in between technical talk about in-game physics and texture mechanics:

-The nunchuk attachment will not be used. This really wasn’t surprising, but it just solidified the feeling most everyone had that the game would be very simple to control.

-A lot of early concepts went out the window, such as blocks that explode paint everywhere and this awesome bendy stick that could be used to swing around and knock things over. A short video was shown of this bendy stick mechanic and it was really awesome. I am bummed it didn’t make the final cut.

-In the most fascinating bit of information, Louis Castle was very open and honest about the reception the game is currently getting in the industry. He admits releasing info about the game too early and really wished they had chose to keep it under wraps for a little while longer. Once the first trailer was revealed, there was a pretty big negative backlash, most criticizing the simple graphics and concept and expecting something more “epic” from a man like Spielberg. Mr. Castle assured everyone in the room that once we played the game our hesitations would go away.

With this the seminar ended. A few members of the press then got to approach the podium where some kiosks were available with a demo of the game. Was the EA VP right in his assessment that we would like it a lot more once we played it?

The hands-on was ridiculously short, but, good news, I loved what I played! Yes, the concept is simple, but the controls are really spot-on (a lot more than most Wii 3rd party games). In addition, throwing things at the screen and watching these sometimes Rube Goldberg-esque block puzzles collapse all around with (with accompanying rumble) is pretty satisfying.

One thing I thought was really cool was how the Blox actually react to what you are doing on-screen. They don’t just sit there as part of the scenery. They will sometimes dodge your projectiles or even cheer you on if you do something extra explosive. This also affects the gameplay, as the physics engine is so spot-on it will actually know where your Blox are located on the screen and react accordingly.

The jury is still out on how this gameplay will pan out over a full game, but things are looking good so far. With the addition of a pretty cool level editor, online support for sending your friends some of your complex creations, and head tracking support (um, seriously!), Boom Blox could end up being one of the best 3rd party games for the Wii.

Even though I was disappointed that I couldn’t give Spielberg a hug, the seminar raised my interest in Boom Blox exponentially. I can’t wait to play more come May 2008 when the game is released.

Chad Concelmo