The Friday talks. Bringing a fine GDC to an end; this is the first year where I haven’t gone to a single talk that I felt was a mistake for me to attend, and several were excellent. And powerful: two or three of this year’s talks brought me to tears.

10:00am: Turning Comedy of Manners into Gameplay: Versu Postmortem, Emily Short

The initial slide renamed the talk: Versu Post(partum). “We’re going to be raising this kid and putting it through college for a while.”

Versu superficially looks like a Choose Your Own Adventure game. But the state space in Versu is much larger. Versu offers options based on a social simulation: in a given context, you have various options, as do the AI characters. (Some options are more expected, some are less expected.)

This all adds up to a “social physics” system: it models states and behaviors, and doesn’t require the designer to map out paths and choices in advance. This lets the player take relationships in the game in directions which the author didn’t envision. (A story about a player’s experience flirting with a footman during a dinner party; then, the other guests moved to another room, she was left alone with the footman, realized she didn’t really want to pursue a relationship with the footman, and awkwardly left. That awkwardness is quite possibly how this would play out in real life…)

(An example from a dinner party game, showing different interactions between your character and other players in the party, and even allowing you to choose to play it through from multiple points of view.)

She showed an earlier version that played out in real time: NPCs would keep on acting even if you don’t do anything. That emphasizes the autonomy of the other characters; in fact, one of the playtesters of that version thought that the game was multiplayer!

They wanted to give players context for the choices, which means exposing state to some extent. There are images of the NPC’s, which change according to the mood of the characters, but the player often didn’t see that because they were watching the text; so they moved the images to the bottom of the screen, which is near where the player’s eyes were.

They also used to embed the action choices in links in the text itself. But that meant that players were constantly scanning for links making sure that they didn’t miss things; that got players thinking about the wrong sorts of things, and also further obscured the underlying systems. (And the fact that the prototype was advancing on its own during this time raised the stress level.)

So they moved to a stepwise turn-by-turn setup; you can still choose not to take an action, letting the NPCs continue to act, but it’s an active choice.

Moral: scrolling interactive text is hard to get right.

Narrative design and the simulator:

Not a lot of prior art. (She mentioned games called Prom Week and Facade.) They divided the content into episode files and character files. The character files talk about how people behave and evaluate others (e.g. they don’t mind being around unintelligent people but wouldn’t hire them), dialogue lines that they’ll use in multiple contexts, and story arc info for that character.

The episode files contain information about extrinsic events that matter for everybody in the story. The basic premise, the scene structure, the transitions between scenes.

They started with a set of gates and keys, albeit with many options for how to make it past the gate, and in a more social context. E.g. find evidence by making friends with a suspect or helping a fellow guest stop crying or searching the victim’s papers directly. (Each of which can lead to further subproblems, e.g. the host might confront you if you decide to search.)

She found that, whenever people took an option that allowed the player’s character to go off by themself (e.g. searching papers), then the fun level dropped dramatically. So she avoids doing that: if you’re alone for an emotionally fraught reason, that can be effective, but in general don’t do that.

You want to allow players to express themselves in the choice of a solution: e.g. maybe you don’t like one of the other NPCs, so you decide to antagonize that character. That’s good; as an author, try to not only allow multiple solutions but also don’t make judgments on whether the player found the “right” solution.

Also, people may make the same choice for different reasons: unlock a given choice in multiple ways, and have the payoff support those motivations.


They spent a lot of time digging into Jane Austen. In particular, they would take scenes from her work, chop it up into sections, and mark it up in terms of motivation that might cause a mythical AI to react that way. That helped point out ways to expand the system: is it powerful enough to model these interactions and responses through underlying motivations?

They have a testbed where they throw together characters over a game of Whist, including characters from different stories. So she gave an example where a character from an aristocratic story and a character from an office comedy were playing together; the former told a veiled off-color story, and the latter responded by saying that it was work-inappropriate, please don’t make him tell HR. Which is great: that expresses understanding about the situation and aspects of personality (e.g. prudishness) that transfer across centuries, while expressing it in a locally grounded manner.

They want to expand the system to allow more authors and more contexts, moving in a UGC direction. And that example gives hope that it will work.

Her final point: this GDC is about authenticity; and there’s something critical about game design, namely whether or not you are telling a truth. Austen was useful for her in grounding this: she would spend some time trying to get a funny interaction work, say, but then she would return to thinking about Austen to make sure that that interaction was coming from somewhere real.

11:30am: Mad as Hell: Hothead Developers Rant Back, Anna Anthropy, Naomi Clark, Jason Della Rocca, Mitu Khandaker, Anna Marsh, Margaret Robertson, Kellee Santiago, Karen Sideman, Eric Zimmerman

The most solid rant session I’ve seen: not a weak one in the bunch, and several were excellent.

Karen Sideman: I’m not really a psychopath, but I play one in my favorite games.

In games, you’re manipulating game pieces. These days, there’s frequently a lot of narrative overlay there, but still, you’re manipulating NPCs as pieces. If you were doing this in other contexts, you would be labeled as a psychopath. Let’s raise an army! (as though they were our children)

Anna Marsh: You don’t have to work 18 hour days sleep under the desk and shit in the corner to make games.

Long hours are not productive. Managers who rely on crunch are incompetent. But: is it just the management’s fault? Lots of this comes from a lack of planning, which we don’t like. Where’s the pre-production? Other creative industries do a lot of it. We have this myth that the only way to make good games is to be 100% committed to games, and that we have to express that in our work practices.

The raw material for our creativity is our experience; if we spend all our time immersing ourselves in games, we’ll get more and more incestuous. Artists in other fields don’t shut themselves out from experiences that aren’t part of their craft. Work efficiently, not obsessively, and you’ll make a better game.

Mitu Khandaker: Everybody deserves to be treated equally! It doesn’t matter if you are black or yellow or brown or normal!

She’d originally wanted to rant about something other than race; but, while thinking about that, something race-related came up, she thought “I don’t want to be the angry minority talking about race”, and that thought made her angry. So here she is, being angry, talking about race.

A couple of years ago, she thought that race representation in games wasn’t much of a problem. You can identify with people who don’t look like you. But: she grew up having to do that over and over again, while white male friends didn’t have to do that.

As creators of content, we are the ones who get do define what normal is. Excellent rant about the concept of political correctness; I didn’t get all of it, but: IT’S ALL FUCKING POLITICAL. If you’re afraid of making missteps, ask questions.

Kellee Santiago:

A myth: as a developer, you can have a great idea, work hard, sacrifice everything, and at the end you’ll have success and be rich! Didn’t happen for the folks who worked on Journey; didn’t happen for lots of people. There are a lot of distribution option and funding options, but still: people with money want retreads, all too often your only choice is working on nothing but dreams.

But: we sit on the precipice of an exciting time, if only we handle it properly. A few indie developers have worked for nothing but a dream, and have lots of money. So right now a few people have money who also have a vision beyond doing more of the same.

Consider the Renaissance. A lot of traders in Italy suddenly were rich, and spent their money as being patrons of art. Patronage is a dirty word, but without it, a lot of important art wouldn’t exist. Maybe this model doesn’t resonate with you; but a revolution is possible that can lead somewhere different and better. Porpentine: it’s not that better and different games aren’t being made every day, it’s that they aren’t being covered.

So: once you’ve shipped your amazing game, remember the people who get back to work.

The Duct Tape Award: awarded to Scott Jon Siegel, last year’s Duct Tape Award winner!

Last year: less talk, more rock. But, sadly: 2012 was less talk, but he didn’t ship a single game for almost all of the year. The stakes felt too high, he felt he was failing everyone. A critical voice in his head was taking too much of a toll; so he decided to start making bad games. And he made 16 games in December 2012!

We make games for ourselves as much as for others. I hope we can make bad games together.

Chris Hecker: Fair Use

A video montage, with Chris not speaking at all; he put it up on his website.

Anna Anthropy:

Read out a version of Cara Ellison’s Romero’s Wives. Here’s the video.

Naomi Clark: (Bring Back) Cinema Envy

New Hollywood (1967-1982). Major directors and studios made films addressing major social issues. The Spook in the Door: this is the sort of thing you want to get in trouble for, not for being potty-mouthed pre-teens obsessed with boobs.

Violence can be problematic – this is only “edgy” in games.

“Washing one’s hand of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” – Paolo Freire

We need more angles on how to approach political issues in games. One suggestions: Games from anger. 1) Look around the world, get pissed off. 2) Organize, get pissed off together. 3) Deconstruct the systems. 4) Shape systems into a compelling experience of meaningful choices. (Game design!) (I missed steps 5-7)

Margaret Robertson: I Hate People

I Hate You. I hate each of you. You are everywhere, an infection, a disease, leeching and creeping into my game. I don’t want you there. Fuck you Game Center. Fuck you Xbox Live. Fuck you Ascension noise.

I Hate GDC. That was going to be my rant, but you people ruined my rant, saying brave, intelligent, expressive things. Now I have to do the same thing or I’m an asshole. You guys are impossible!

I react so strongly to multiplayer games because they’re so so powerful, so emotionally revealing. In front of people, I’m going to have to lose or win or let myself down; they’re there with their unpredictable meat brains. And games make me do stuff with their systems and mechanics.

That means that the whole rest of my identity is this constructed, mediated thing; the whole rest of my identity gets revealed when playing games. I love making games, but there’s something weird in my head that stops me from accessing them.

2:30pm: Rethinking How We Build Games and Why: The Papo & Yo Story, Vander Caballero

This looked like a great talk: Papo & Yo is a great game, Vander Caballero is clearly a thoughtful guy, and he had a wonderful presentation style where he edited pre-existing sketches on Paper on an iPad in real time. Unfortunately, my sleeping habits caught up with me: normally I fall asleep during one talk a day, and while I’d been doing surprisingly well on that front this year, I couldn’t quite make it through the whole conference…

35 years old, had a good job at EA, a family; but not happy. He wanted to make a game to help struggling kids; an indie game that could compete with big ones.

This problem has been solved before, in movies. E.g. movies approaching war: big studios approach it from a perspective of heroism, independents look at it from a human point of view.

He compared movies in terms of budget, box office, Oscars. Big movie costs $80M, makes $280M; indie costs $15M, makes $50M. (Similar profit ratio.) And the indie movie wins more Oscars. So: being indie is potentially a profitable business.

So: quit the job and form your studio! Forming a studio seems complicated, with a lot of stuff to do. (Find people, develop, market + publish, pay people, business development, HR and retention, legal.) Think of this like a strategy game: people are troops, development is time, payment is wood, HR is barracks, legal is walls, etc.

When you leave a big company, you’re risky, it’s hard to get money. There are lots of sources of money; and money needs you as much as you need money. You can get money either with a business plan or a product pitch; he went with the latter. He needed to put the tiger on the table: make a prototype! But an alcoholic father would freak out investors, so he needed to work on metaphors. (Metaphors are especially important in the North American market, he says.)

So: his alcoholic father becomes a monster addicted to frogs. Partners loved the product: got their wallet and brains. Also, there’s a fund in Canada that can help with independent art works, so asked them, too. And some from publishers. Getting money from multiple sources spreads the risk; it’s a useful technique from movies.

Games are good at fear, ecstasy, rage; movies are good at love, grief. Love and grief depend on empathy; games suck at empathy.

(And here I drifted off…)

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