So, now I’ve written about all the GDC panels I attended; for reference, the links are:

So, that’s the trees; what about the forest? Looking back at it, I see two themes coming out of the conference for me.

Know Your Audience

The first is that you should try to know your audience. Not just know them in terms of demographics, but know them in terms of what’s important to them, whether in games or in life in general.

This was a particularly important theme this year because of the rise of social games. Video games had been turning into an unfortunate monoculture through much of last decade: people who bought games knew what they wanted, people who developed games wanted much of the same things, the industry could succeed by mostly producing technical refinements of the same old stuff without re-examining where it was coming from. Nintendo (especially with the Wii, but we certainly shouldn’t forget DS games like Brain Age) showed the advantages of a broader gaze, but didn’t get as much industry follow-up as I would have expected; Facebook games have now turned into a second major salvo, showing just how broad the potential audience for video games is.

But nobody really knows how to make games that best fit the needs and desires of this less-narrow audience. (I certainly agree with Gareth Davis when he said that Facebook’s iconic games are ahead of us; his point that socialization with large groups is different from socialization with your friends is well-taken, too.) Of the talks on this theme, I particularly appreciated Laralyn McWilliams’ talk, both because of the positive characterizations she ended up with and because of frankness with which she discussed how easy it is to make mistakes in this area. And Mark Skaggs’ talk is emblematic of a major sea change: rather than throwing stuff out and hope that people will like it, you can measure how people feel (or at least how they react) and change your game accordingly.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: going through the sessions I attended, speaker after speaker touched on this theme. Timothy Fitz talked about the technical architecture necessary for such rapid response; Mike Goslin talked about the social space that their games provide; Jesse Schell had a rather moving talk about parents and kids playing together; Nicole Lazzaro focused on emotions; Sid Meier talked about how he was surprised by players’ reactions’ to game elements.

Strong Centers

The other theme wasn’t, perhaps, quite as deeply present throughout the conference, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of months. I’ve been using the term “focus” to describe it, but of course that’s the wrong term for me to use: I should be saying “Strong Centers” instead.

Stepping back to the previous theme for a moment, many of the speakers talked about how casual players don’t like tutorials: they don’t care about understanding all the game mechanics, they just want to go and do stuff. But Randy Smith made the best points here: you don’t want to take away the tutorial and just leave a void, you instead want the initial moments and minutes of playing the game to be a “game toy”, letting the game’s core ideas shine as brightly to new players as possible. Which forces you to think about just what those core ideas are; and then, to truly strengthen them, Randy insisted on subsequent depth awaiting players who find those centers appealing.

The other talk that did a particularly good job with Strong Centers was Christina Norman’s. She explained the lengths that they went to strengthen the center of RPG in Mass Effect 2, which required throwing off quite a lot of baggage both from its predecessor and from the RPG genre in general; the result is much cleaner and more powerful. I also want to mention Jason Rohrer’s talk in this context: he explained that the game that he’s currently working on is all about a simple idea, namely working through the implications of whether or not people know that somebody else knows that they know something.

Bringing It All Together

There are two other talks that I’d also like to mention here. The first is Sulka Haro’s talk on the Habbo Hotel economy. It fits into both of the themes above: it focuses on the economy as a strong center to the game; and, at every step of the story that he tells, the game team is responding to desires needs that their players are showing them, even when they have to stretch the possibilities of what’s possible within the game to do so!

The other is Kellee Santiago and Robin Hunicke’s. Which, I suppose, also hits at both of those themes, but at a much more personal level: it’s about what developers want (personally and professionally, but of course both are deeply intertwined), it’s about finding the centers within ourselves.

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