GDC 10: GDC Microtalks

Organized by Naughty Dog co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand, “GDC Microtalks 2010: Ten Speakers, 200 Slides, Limitless Ideas) accomplished pretty much what it said on the tin. Ten different game designers from drastically different background and areas gave five minute talks aided by automatically advancing slides.

Including the likes of Jesse Schell, Ian Bogost, and Suzanne Seggerman, the session was almost overwhelmingly packed full of intelligent stuff, all (or mostly) based around the central theme, “play with us.”

I’ve tried my best to summarize the talks, after the jump.

Lemarchand introduced the audience to the microtalk theme, “play with us,” and introduced each of the speakers.

Kellee Santiago (thatgamecompany)

“When I think of logging onto the Internet to play a game with people,” Santiago admitted, “I feel a sense of dread.” Online experiences aren’t really about the sheer act of play, Santiago argued: they’re about competition, superiority and negativity.

Santiago cited the work of Stewart Brand, founder of the New Games Movement. Formed as a reaction against the Vietnam War, Brand argued that America’s attitude toward sports and games informed our attitude toward war. To combat this, Brand devised games that were focused more on player enjoyment than pure victory. The point of the New Games Movement wasn’t to get rid of competitive experiences, but to change the player’s perspective on play. If you’re not enjoying yourself — and it can be awfully hard to enjoy yourself when a 13-year-old starts teabagging you in Halo — it’s the game’s fault, not yours.

Designers can control the possibility space of what players can feel and to some extent what sort of play they engage in, so why not focus on encouraging play and changing how people relate to one another?

“We can do better,” Santiago concluded. “…let’s start inviting the world to play with us.”

Gary Penn (former games journalist, current game designer)

Penn’s talk focused on the idea that game experiences can be divided into two sections: the end, and the way. The end concerns what the player feels, and the sort of enjoyment they experience. The way deals with the things the designers had to think about in order to effect those reactions.

Penn contrasted the mechanically identical games Gimme Friction Baby and Orbital, pointing out the various reasons Orbital often feels more rewarding and enjoyable. Orbital feels more tangible and emotionally satisfying thanks in part to its aesthetics: the shots feel more forceful, the angle of your shots is illustrated by a visual trail which informs your play, and thus success and failure always feel like direct results of player action.

The “end” of Orbital, Penn argued, was informed by a “way” full of important desires. The designers of Orbital wanted to make a game full of emotional ups and downs, a game that sympathizes with its player (Orbital congratulates the player for tough shots and laments near-misses, unlike Gimme Friction Baby), gives the player a convenient, fluff-free experience, and exudes a certain magic.

Chaim Gingold (part of Spore concept team, designed Spore creature creator)

Gingold’s talk likened both players and game designers to the Trickster character found in so many myths and folklore.

Tricksters use other animals’ hunger against them, like tricking a fish with a worm, but often the Trickster’s own hunger comes back to kill them. Compare this to a game like Bomberman, where players attempt to trap their enemies with bombs but can accidentally trap themselves. Tricksters are flexible creatures who try things in new ways, just like players.

Gingold was quick to point out that Tricksters weren’t just amoral con artists; they were cultural heroes who in many cases brought wisdom to the world. Where Prometheus brought fire to the humans, designers immerse themselves in complex mathematics and science to bring us games and technology.

Tricksters like Hermes also conned their way into becoming gods. Gingold drew a comparison between Hermes and indies like Kyle Gabler, who circumvented the studio system to become powerful creators in their own rights.

Tricksters also introduce chaos in order to create new life, not unlike how Activision started making games for Atari’s systems. It was an unexpected move, but it changed the entire games industry.

Jane Pinckard (game girl advance)

Pinckard discussed love — ”

specifically that heartaching, heartwrenching heartpounding sensation we know as romantic love.” Pinckard admits there is “room to improve” the romantic aspects of games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, but also argues that, 

“I don’t think we’ve been entirely unsuccessful in gettting players to form deep attachments” in these virtual romances.

Given that so many games stimulate only the neo-cortex and the reptillian part of our brains, Pinckard celebrated the attempts of so many games to stimulate the limbic system, which reacts when we feel in love. Pinckard broke down virtual love into four different categories: love as narrative (Final Fantasy 8), love as nurture (Nintendogs), love as discovery (Knights of the Old Republic, where romance often felt like nothing more than picking the right dialogue options) and love as achievement (while mechanically similar to KotOR, Pinckard felt the act of romancing Alistair in Dragon Age felt more legitimate and rewarding simply because of how much content there was in the game — Pinckard felt legitimate suspense in trying to figure out whether Alistair liked her character or not).

In conclusion, Pinckard laid out five suggestions that worked for both first dates, and videogame romances: have a sense of humor, make use of adrenaline-filled moments, let the player express themselves (“I wanna be able to blow a kiss to Alistair,” Pinckard lamented), allow for vulnerability (Ico), and feel like the object of your affection is unique (Pinckard didn’t care for the romance options in Fable II because your potential mates are all nobodies).

“I don’t really care about the Citizen Kane of games,” Pinckard said in closing, “I want the Pride & Prejudice of games.”

Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games)

Bogost opened by reading the imagist poem “In the Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound. The poem consists only of two descriptions — one of faces in a crowd, one of flowers on a bough — without explicitly connecting the two. It’s up to the reader to reconcile the similarities and differences between the two images.

This sort of imagist style is similar to Will Wright’s works. In The Sims (my comparison, not Bogost’s), you can’t understand what your Sims are saying or necessarily why they do what they do, but you mentally volunteer your own opinions and motivations, making the work more personally meaningful.

Braid works in a similar way: Jon Blow sets up a vague metaphorical framework, and it’s up to the player to try to connect the ideas of forgiveness and do-overs in their own unique ways. This sort of design doesn’t “get out of the player’s way” in the way designers like Clint Hocking encourages: the designer is constantly present in this sort of experience, creating a machine and inspiring the player to consider “what it means that the gears mesh.” When you play these sorts of games, you’re invited to come away with a unique conclusion about yourself and your part in the experience.

Margaret Robertson (game designer, consultant)

Briefly pimping out her new audio-only iPhone game Papa Sangre, Robinson asked the audience how she should price it. By a show of hands, Robinson noted (I wasn’t looking at the audience, so I can’t verify this) that most of the people on the left side of the auditorium supported lower price points, and the people on the right side of the auditorium supported higher ones.

At this point, Robinson revealed that she’d tricked the audience, and had expected this outcome. Before the talk, Robinson had placed fliers for the game on every chair. The fliers on the left side of the auditorium said the game was coming out on April 4th, while the fliers on the right side claimed the game was coming out on June 28th. Those who saw a high number were subconsciously primed to gravitate toward higher numbers, Pinckard said, while those who saw a low number thought the game should be priced lower.

(I call bullshit — I was sitting on the right side of the auditorium, and I was fine with a $5.99 price point because iPhone games are too goddamn cheap in general. But maybe that’s part of the hypnotism or something.)

This is what Robinson does as a consultant — through “behavioral economics,” Robinson argued that there are methods of understanding players that go beyond simple, mathematical analysis like what regular economists deal in. If there’s more to the player’s motivations than what we initially see, Robinson argued, then perhaps it’d be worth further exploring those motivations and acknowledging them in our game designs. Robinson suggested it might be worth worrying about, in addition to a traditional difficulty curve, a “curiosity curve.”

Sam Roberts (director of Indiecade)

Before getting into games, Roberts adapted works of fiction for the stage. As a fan of Bertolt Brecht, Roberts discussed the way Brecht focused on setting up the identity of the speaker in order to give the audience a more informed perspective from which to consider the work. Hunter S. Thompson did the same thing: when you read Fear and Loathing you’re not just reading some guy’s opinion on America, you’re reading a drug-addicted, gun-loving libertarian’s take on America.

Similarly, George Carlin has a bit on football and baseball that points out the vocabulary each sport uses directly informs the way each game is played. Football has the blitz. Baseball has the sacrifice. These placards give the viewer a clearer understanding of the nature of each sport.

Videogames do the same thing: Grand Theft Auto‘s vocabulary concerns shooting people while Harvest Mooni’s concerns farming, even though both games are essentially about the player’s status in a community.

In Grand Theft Auto, you can only steal vehicles: if you instead commandeer them, then the game suddenly becomes about a cop rather than a thief.

Games’ basic pattern of inputs and outputs isn’t dialogue in and of itself: the interaction comes between “the meeting of a game’s expectations and the player’s desires.” When Roberts played Ultima III, he spent hours trying to kill a friendly NPC just for fun. To him, the game became a unique experience, a unique dialogue about power and trust and, ultimately, failure.

Roberts ended his talk by arguing that most player/game dialogues are very limited, with poorly thought out placards that don’t say much about the “active metaphor” of the game. “Say something with your games,” Roberts encouraged.

Jesse Schell (professor, CEO of Schell Games)

As mentioned in an earlier news post, Schell effectively took his DICE talk, removed all the optimism, and tackled the question of what designers can do right now to combat the impending gameification of modern life.

Schell emphasized that the “gamepocalypse” is definitely coming. Moore’s law shows that tech will soon be cheap enough that you’ll see electronic games on soda cans, and nobody’s going to stand up against it. Nobody stood up and revolted when the number of commericals in relation to real TV content jumped from 13% to 36%. Nobody revolted when TV stations started permanently keeping their logos in the bottom-right corner of the screen, burning the image into your brain. Nobody revolted when Shea Stadium became Citibank Stadium. Even if you did, Schell said, “it didn’t do a damn bit of good!”

“Corporations are gonna be creating customized games to fit every activity, every day,” Schell said. And with that impending change, designers have to decide what part of that fight they want to be on. Are you a designer who just wants to make money at all costs, or are you interested in fulfilling your audience, or making social change, or creating art? The romantics can win out against those designers who want only money, but only if the romantics “wake the hell up,” in Schell’s words.

The war is already here, Schell warned, and if you don’t decide what side of it you’re on, someone else will decide for you.

Suzanne Seggerman (co-founder, Games for Change)

After describing games as a meaningful part of our culture, “potentially the most important of the 21st century,” Seggerman urged the designers in the room to create relevant, honest, realistic games. Games have the ability to tackle real-world issues, which is exactly what Games for Change is all about.

Seggerman pointed out the enduring genius of Bob Dylan, who rose to fame not because of his awful singing voice or talent with a guitar, but because of his honest desire to express a view of the world around him. Impactful, relevant media doesn’t have to preach, Seggerman argued: MASH is one of the most-watched TV shows of all time, and it was also an insightful critique of the Vietnam War.

“Let’s make games with realism and relevance,” Seggerman said. “…do you wanna spend the next few years working on a me-too shooter” when you could isntead be making personal, relevant art that might stand the test of time?



Anthony Burch