Game Developers' Conference is the only place where people are --
and have been -- actively thinking about and discussing the combination
of interactivity, aesthetics, sound, user experience, artificial intelligence,
and non-linear narrative on a regular basis.
GDC is an interesting event. Self-loathing and braggadocio are mixed
with equal parts of awe, self-effacement, and grandstanding. Games
are the only entertainment industry to rival Hollywood, and, like
Hollywood, they are both in love with and despise themselves. The
games industry has its healthy share of superstars and its steady
stream of wannabes. The industry is relatively new, so while it
carries financial clout, many of its practitioners and consumers
grew up being thought of as geeks and outcasts, derided for their
passion. There is a simultaneous craving for academic and critical
discourse and a repulsion of it for many of the same reasons. Game
companies can be incredibly innovative and artistic or mind-numbingly
dense, slow-adopters. While this may be true of any commercial art
field, in gaming, they seem to wear their internal conflicts on
their sleeves. Also, the GDC seems, roughly, four-fifths male, which
is bound to influence the type of content and manner in which things
|The GDC is an interesting event. Self-loathing and braggadocio are mixed with equal parts of awe, self-effacement, and grandstanding. Games
are the only entertainment industry to rival Hollywood, and, like
Hollywood, they are both in love with and despise themselves.
most exciting aspect of the games industry is the burgeoning independent
game developer movement (think indie movies with smaller budgets
and, generally, smaller goals) led by GameLab and fostered by the
Independent Game Developers Association. The
IGDA has a strong presence at the conference, serving as both hub
and host to much of the conference; yet it also seemed invisible
to many of the conference's big studio attendees.
first two days of the week-long conference were set aside for all-day
workshops. On the first day, Monday, I attended the Serious Games
Workshop, which actually was a two-day event. The pretense of the
SGW was to discuss serious issues with games and to think about
serious issues which might be solved through games and game play.
The room was broken into groups and you had to align yourself with
a group such as wireless or social games or military concerns. Each
group created a list of things that they might be able to do well,
and a list of things that might keep them from accomplishing these
things. At the end, each group presented their conclusions. Regardless
of the groups, everybody had pretty much the same answers, phrased
in different ways. Things that were good: learning through social
interaction and simulation rather than a priori investigation, rich
scenarios, life-like interactions, etc. Bad things: lack of money,
lack of research, lack of statistics to measure performance. It
was enlightening to hear the Social Issues Group raise the same
concerns and problems as the Military Interests Group.
second day, I devoted my time to the massively multiplayer game
workshop led by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen. The workshop was
entertaining and informative. It was a nice real-life supplement
to their book Rules Of Play.
Participants designed, developed, then play-tested massively multiplayer
another day, Eric Zimmerman challenged Will Wright, Warren Spector,
and Raph Koster
to come up with a love story game. They gave their presentations
to a standing-room-only audience. Mr. Spector delivered an enlightening
speech on how games would never be able to elicit a feeling of love,
based on extensive research he had done on the bio-chemical and
social phenomena we experience when we fall in love. Mr. Koster
sketched a branching-narrative text game based on romance novels:
slides were rendered in pink, cursive type, replete with exclamations.
However, it was Mr. Wright's game that truly delivered. He began
with a poster from Casablanca. He followed with a brief sketch of
what he described as a First Person Kisser; a peer-to-peer, chat-enabled,
3D world game in which users meet in a space. After finding another
person or group, the users are given a goal destination. They then
have a certain amount of time to traverse the landscape and various
intrinsic obstacles to arrive at their goal. He spoke about how
conflict and stressful situations often help heighten our feeling
of camaraderie and encourage deeper bonds. Then he described the
world in which his game would be situated: Battlefield 1942.
Two orthogonal games would be being played within the same world:
one which is a typical military, FPS, strategy game; the other a
civilian, social bonding game. Each might influence the other (e.g.,
the soldiers might choose to help the civilians, or to drive over
them in their tanks). The game sounds both plausible and fun. It's
precisely the type of brilliant idea that makes you wonder why no
one thought of it before.
called for a greater level of criticism in games. He noted that
most game reviews are concerned only with what the games look like
and how they play, neglecting both subtextual and cultural analyses.
This moment of self-analysis was complemented by Gonzalo Frasca's
elucidation of the divide between academics and developers, and
Robin Hunicke's panel, in which academics
and industry moguls discussed how and why they could and could not
Experimental Games Workshop, hosted by Jon Blow, is always one of
the festival highlights. The EGW began by featuring the work of
this year's Indie Game Jam. Each year, a small
cadre of programmers are given a single technology and four days
to assemble a game. This year, the technology was Atman Binstock's
2D physics engine. My favorite games were a herding game in which
the user is a wasp, and a rock-em, sock-em-robots type game, which,
while lacking a need for real skill, was both hilarious and fun.
Several of the compelling games featured worlds which could be affected
by user interaction. Another feature of the EGW was a demo of a
Japanese game, Katamari Damacy, in which the user rolled around a
ball, collecting more and more things. The more items you collect,
the bigger your ball gets and the bigger items you can collect;
i.e., you start by collecting thumbtacks and work your way up to
pencils and staplers, then on to birds and animals, then people
and cars, etc. Eventually you are rolling a ball over the surface
of the Earth, collecting countries as you go.
Hunicke gave an enlightening talk about time in games. Chaim Gingold
presented a brief analysis of Wario Ware, an experimental
(but mass distributed) GameBoy game in which the actual game changes
every 3 seconds. Mary Flanagan and Ken Perlin talked about their
ambitious Rapunsel Project in which they are trying to get middle
school girls interested in programming. Peter Weyrauch and Andrew
Stern demonstrated the latest Zoesis
project, Save the Princess. The project is another step
in Zoesis' AI-heavy games and in this case, an ogre responds
in a plausible manner to your advances and actions. To win the game,
you must flatter the ogre, compelling him to step away from the
princess long enough for you to rescue her.
IGDA and GDC awards ceremony was no particular surprise, with
major studios and projects scooping up most of the awards, with
the exception of Puzzle Pirates and the simple and great Dr.
Pierce hosted the ArtModJam which featured art projects created
by modifying existing games, or using game engines to create new
works. The works ranged from the quiet and poetic to the heavy-handed.
the games that were featured, the most original and compelling were
Puzzle Pirates and Façade. Puzzle Pirates
is a MMORPG in which the user is, well, a pirate. Users inhabit
a pirate world and do pirate things. However, every task that needs
to be completed is accomplished by playing puzzle-type games, ala
Tetris. The experience is surprisingly fun and communal.
was perhaps the most ambitious project on display, as it was undertaken
by only two people, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern. The deceptively
simple goal of Façade is to create an interactive
10-minute drama. The game is structured as though the user were
a first person character in a short story. You interact (speak through
typing and pick up and maneuver throughout the space with your mouse)
with two characters, Trip and Grace. As the game unfolds, it turns
out that you are an old friend of this couple who is apparently
in the midst of some sort of relationship trauma. There are several
impressive things about the game, the first one simply being the
subject matter it chooses to tackle -- no guns here. Secondly, there
is the fact that Mr. Stern and Mr. Mateas have done an amazing job
at building a dynamic story engine, which manages character movements
and interactions while moving the narrative forward. The characters'
responses are utterly believable. The game most closely represents
not another game, but, rather, the experience of being in a live
improv environment. You can read about what they have to say in
the book First Person, which features essays and commentary by some
of the foremost new media practitioners and theorists).
was hoping to see some cool new games for the Sony EyeToy, but unfortunately,
their developers still seem to be behind the curve. They did feature
a cool demo of a magic spell casting system, but there was no game
to accompany it. Last year, the Indie Game Jam came up with a whole
set of games using a similar technology (Zack Simpson's shadow tracking
and being measurably better than what Sony has thus far released.
is only the 6th year of the conference, and there's already an active
voice pushing for more critical self-analysis. It's nice to see
that the indie game movement is gaining mass, which is a recognition
of vision and appeal, if not cold hard cash. It would have been
nice to see more time and space devoted to writing in games (the
few events which addressed this topic were so full they had to turn
people away at the door). And, as I said before, the GDC appears
to be roughly four-fifths male, which is depressing. Still, coming
out of the event, people were inspired and motivated, and what more
could one ask of a conference.