One bit that I forgot to mention in my writeup yesterday: one of the posters was talking about using a pressure sensor on the floor to detect how engaged players were in a game. Seems like a potentially interesting idea, though the analysis was flawed: they changed too many variables at once to be able to draw strong conclusions.

Anyways, on to today.

9:00am: Drew Davidson and Richard Lemarchand on Uncharted 2.

This wasn’t a traditional talk: Davidson played through scenes live, with both Lemarchand and Davidson discussing the scene in question. They started with the opening sequence with a train on a cliff: they discussed its tutorial role (serving in that function even while dropping you in the middle of the action, in fact in the middle of the story arc) and its camera usage: as they repeatedly mentioned, the game frequently takes camera control away for a few seconds at key moments for dramatic effect.

In the next bit, they talked about the buddy system. Your buddy gives you cues (jumping out a window where you’re supposed to follow, taking cover while looking in a way that orients you to enemy locations), but also helps keep the narrative grounded. Too many games have a single hugely powerful character wandering around the world almost completely unmoored from a social context.

At this point, I stopped taking good notes, but I enjoyed the rest of the talk; it certainly increased the chance that I’ll play the game! One bit that fit in with some of my recent concerns: on a couple of occasions, Davidson mentioned that his wife enjoyed watching him play, but more on easy difficulty than on normal: the fights dragged on too long on normal, interrupting the narrative flow.

10:30am: Eric Zimmerman, The Fantasy of Labor: A Social Game Design Workshop

Yay, Facebook games! Which he paints as having roots in casual games and MMOs: played in small chunks of time, but with a persistent world. He then gave a tour through some of the typical design elements of social games.

At which point each table designed a game. My table, ironically, decided on a game with a fashion theme, which we named “Supermodel Hero”. I swear that I had nothing to do with the choice of topic; I did, however, chime in with some game mechanics that seem to me to be obvious ways to handle some of the Facebook-specific issues that Zimmerman asked us to deal with that, in retrospect, made the game a bit closer to Sorority Life than was perhaps ideal for me. Still, I don’t think any of the other participants minded my suggestions, at least.

And, while the result was that I probably learned less from that part of the exercise than I would have otherwise, the rest was very interesting: we had to make paper prototypes on short order, and then convince other people wandering by to play the game. That was a really interesting experience; I don’t think I’ve ever made paper prototypes like that before, and I was actually really pleased with the amount of detail that we could put into them. Here’s a picture of what some of our prototype looked like:

He then ended by talking about older categories of games of chance and games of skill versus a newly popular category of games of labor. Which, he said, was a fantasy of labor: if you put time in, you get rewards out, and that’s not the way the real world works.

Next came a lunch session; because of the length of the previous session, though, I arrived late, and it was really targeted a lot more at active teachers, so I didn’t think I had much to contribute, so I ducked out for a bit.

2:00pm: The Girls in Games panel discussion, by Catherine Wyman, Alexa Boccieri, Gaby Byrd, and Katie Neal.

This was a fireside chat led by a teacher and three students from a girls’ high school, talking about a survey they’d done of middle-school girls’ gaming experiences. Certainly pleasant to listen to; the most amusing bit for me, though, was when one of them mentioned that the most popular Facebook game at their school was Sorority Life! So, afterwards, I mentioned that I was working on that; a few text messages with one of their friends led to them grabbing me a few hours later and getting me to sign an autograph for the friend in question. The first time that’s happened to me; I was amused. (But, I guess, if you work on a game that hundreds of thousands of people play daily, then this sort of thing is going to happen…)

3:30pm: Game Design: From Blue Sky to Green Light, by Deborah Todd and Andrew Hoffman.

I felt a little silly going to yet another game concept development session, but the two previous ones that I’d gone to were my favorite sessions of the conference. And I enjoyed this one, too.

My table’s blue sky concept: a consumer awareness game, with a reverse twist: you’re running a store (e.g. a grocery store), trying to make as much money as possible, no matter what sort of slimy tactics, bad product, marketing-driven product promotion it takes. (With an NPC nemesis shining light on this, with documentation available.) It would be targeted at middle school students; maybe it would be on a mobile device, so you can do game actions in real-world stores?

We refined the idea a bit more in our next level of brainstorming. We decided to change the gameplay as you progressed through the game. You’d start off running a lemonade stand, or working a stockboy, or something. There, you don’t have to worry too much about profit and loss, but you’re somewhat aware of it. Then move up to running a store, then something larger, at each point becoming more aware of the economic forces, having access to a wider range of tactics that are father away from what consumers want.

We wanted a way for players to be able to play this as a good guy, not just as a bad guy (or economically amoral guy); we didn’t get very far with details of that, though. The instructor also cautioned us to be careful with character/art choices: characters a few years older than the target audience are ideal.

I’m not sure exactly what to take out of all of this game concept brainstorming, but it’s nice to know that I can do it if necessary and to get a feel for how it works. I don’t yet feel like I have any game ideas that are bursting out of me, but I should probably ask my brain to be a bit more sensitive to ideas in that direction that it has; I’m certainly working in an environment that’s quite receptive to such thoughts, after all.

After that, I had a pleasant chat with Roger Travis and Michael Young; nice to meet another VGHVI founder! And then I had dinner with Jordan, Tanya, and Caleb.

7:00pm: No Longer Bowling Alone, by Henry Jenkins.

I showed up a little late to this; it was about politics, mass media and games, and seemed interesting enough, but it never really grabbed me. I’m not sure how much of that was my showing up late, how much of that was my being a bit tired, and how much was my interests changing over the years, because I’m fairly sure that, at one point in my life, I would have found the talk quite interesting.

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