I’ve broken out two of today’s talks into their own posts:

The rest:

9:00am–10:00am: “Video Games Turn 25: A Historical Perspective and Vision for the Future”, by Satoru Iwata

I actually liked Iwata’s 2009 keynote; this one, not so much.

25 years ago: no industry, just a hobby. Would wear lots of different hats: game designer, artist, sound engineer. Lots of fun; made almost no money, what we produced was primitive. “Video game cavemen.”

Now: more graphics power, more memory, much more costs. Much larger teams, longer timescales. Fortunately, more people are playing games: Nintendo’s basic strategy is to expand market. Sales alone not the whole story: when are machines shared? In 2007, 45% of US population had played a dedicated game console over the last year; in 2010, 62%. More room for growth in Europe, and then there’s emerging markets.

Social network games are different from video games of a social nature. Space War; multiple component ports; wireless communication on handhelds; online play.

“Must-have” comes from three sources: hardware (e.g. Gameboy; not easy); game; social appeal of connecting with other players.

Mario always evolves. Pokemon popular because of social nature. Tetris first video game to attract a female audience in a meaningful way. The Sims: maybe not even a game, no way to win or lose, but phenomenally popular.

Universal appeal. First Kirby game went against then-current trend in action games of being very difficult: designed so that almost anybody could finish it.

Selfishly, hopes Nintendo 3DS is next must-have: because of technology, because of games, because of social appeal. Built-in applications are designed to increase social appeal, and to encourage people to carry the 3DS everywhere to get passive data transfer.

Now Reggie is on stage. Says nothing interesting. Iwata back, game teasers. Then:

Three concerns. First: craftsmanship. Often gets lost as projects get bigger, more complicated. Second: talent development. Too much specialization, hard to assess entire personality of a game. Third: too many games, often cheap or free, so hard to make enough money to survive. is making high-value games a top priority, or not? Smart phone / social network platform owners care more about quantity than high value.

Getting noticed: capture attention immediately; easy to describe unique nature of game to others. With these, reach tipping point for word of mouth. Innovation: make the impossible possible. Trust your passion.

12:00pm–1:00pm: “GDC Microtalks 2011”, by ten speakers

As always, these were excellent, and impossible to summarize: it’s just an experience that washes over you.

Richard Lemarchand: intro. Microtalks means 20 slides, 16 seconds each = 5 minutes 20 seconds. Theme: Say how you play.

Michael John: is the father of computer games the computer, or games? Code fear pulls us to latter, but former is correct. All games are played; not all play is games. Mention of education. Kids should be making computer games; everybody should know how to program. Making game with his daughter.

Jamin Brophy-Warren: Kill Screen! Think about video games as (design) objects. What is a toaster? Lash-up of various properties/components. Games are objects with stories; game players are storytellers. Objects increase in value by being linked to stories. Not currently good at telling stories about games to those outside of our circle. Lacking a common narrative tongue. Overcome the dinner table story, embrace our stories. If we don’t tell our stories, they fade into the ether. Here’s the text of his talk.

Naomi Clark: Tarot decks, I Ching. Divinatory systems give rich matrix of ideas to associate with. Social games. Games of labor. David Sirlin prefers games of skill. And then there’s the fantasy of games of chance. Games of labor also have a fantasy. (As do games of skill: “adolescent delusions of badassery”.) Game designers’ fantasy: fantasy of control. Leave more empty spaces in our games, more pauses in the experience of play?

David Jaffe: Personal gaming setup moving more to portable space. Gap from turning on (non-portable) console to playing. Low-end: 1.5 minutes. High-end: 3+. Lots of other options without that boot problem. Sleep mode? Restrict updates? Shorter games? Multiplayer: best one-on-one, worst with large teams.

Colleen Macklin: Playtesting: the call of the wild. Don’t want to domesticate games too much by excessive tweaking, though. Game we played: want to stay in minority as long as possible. (Didn’t work too well…)

Asi Burak: Text adventures.

Jason Rohrer: Boredom has survival value, perhaps, but not great in games. Don’t want a spoonful of sugar with medicine: want fundamentally delicious medicine. Paintings engage for seconds; music for minutes; movies for hours. Latter engages more you than former. Engagement with plot also has survival value. Games super-engaging, lasting dozens of hours: you can’t even knit while playing them. Survival value of engagement with challenge is obvious. Fight against challenge in games is as hopeless of fight against plot by avant-garde movie directors. But need more plots. Similarly, need more varieties of challenge, while embracing it as potent expressive tool in its own right.

Brandon Boyer: Originally, approached topic with melancholy: more interested in David Foster Wallace, Spalding Grey recently. But then: Little Big Planet, Retro Game Challenge as tragedy. Power of aesthetically pleasing abstract systems. …

Brenda Brathwaite: Wow.

3:00pm–4:00pm: “Seven Ways a Video Game Can Be Moral”, by Richard Rouse III

Wednesday 3:00

Last year: how a video game can make you cry. Sort of a joke talk; this year, on morality, more serious. Moral storytelling a rich tradition, and not easy when done well. Clint Hocking 2007 talk: great game with great systems helps a player explore themselves. He mentioned Ultima 4. That’s 1985; what has changed in the intervening 26 years?

1) Clarity of Intention

Romeo and Juliet lays out the scenario right at the start, with the two warring houses, star-crossed lovers. (Editorial note: spoilers right at the start! Shocking.)

Video games also signal moral issues: Star Wars games saying “Choose Your Path” on the back of the box, morality meters in BioWare game.

Flip side: don’t always have to make your intentions clear. E.g. Rod Serling positioned The Twilight Zone as pure entertainment, even though it wasn’t. Games can do something similar, e.g. Blade Runner game adapts outcome to how player is playing, with no meter in sight: make players feel like they’re doing the right thing.

2) Multiple Points of View

Star Trek example. From original series, and Next Generation; recent reboot movie left moral issues on the side. (But Battlestar Galactica reboot faces moral issues head-on with multiple points of view; answers are much less tidy than in Star Trek.)

Game example: Alpha Centauri. Different factions make different choices in how to build your society, other factions would respond from their own perspectives. The game designers deliberately didn’t take sides between factions.

3) Redemption

Twilight Zone again: characters make bad choices at the start, but learn something after their journey through the zone. (At least if Rod Serling liked the character…)

Mass Effect 2: two independent meters, filled up slowly: largest choice is 45 out of 1900. You want to fill up one, so are encouraged to chip away in one direction. In contrast, Fallout 3 has a single karma meter that you can completely trash with a single early choice: this sets up the possibility of a redemptive journey.

4) Complexity

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Jimmy Stewart wants to uphold the law, but is notorious as man who shot Liberty Valance. Except he didn’t, John Wayne’s character did. Neither of those two is the good guy or the bad guy.

BioShock: Andrew Ryan plays role of villain, but not clear that he did anything villainous. Tenenbaum portrayed as good character, but she did concrete bad things early on. (In contrast, save/harvest is a lot shallower.) BioShock 2 has you decide to save or kill three characters; two have tried to kill you, the third wants you to kill him. More complex, but the “Savior” achievement undermined this complexity: the game’s creative director wished he’d removed it. Similar achievement in other direction in Red Dead Redemption.

5) The Quandry

Example from The Wire: drugs out of control, destroying a city, so police decides to ignore it if it’s in a few limited areas, improving rest of the city. Example from a movie where a kid was kidnapped out of a bad life, into a good one.

Not good example in video games. E.g. No Russian level: you have the choice not to shoot at all, but not more meaningful choices. Train is more successful.

6) Thoughtfulness and Respect

Never Let You Go: doesn’t treat some surface issues directly, instead more obliquely in the context of exploring the characters’ stories and grappling with their short lifespans. In games, The Sims: looks materialistic, but items will fail catastrophically eventually, giving a disincentive to buy for more experienced players.

7) Medium, Genre, and Message

The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad has to leave his family to avoid getting them in trouble with the law. Bleak departure speech in the book; movie version of that speech has a much more uplifting tone. And then Bruce Springsteen wrote it into a song; closer in tone to the book, but more lyrical. Rage Against The Machine performed the same song: Tom Joad is going to kick some ass! What would video game version be like?

Final thought: Truffault version of Farenheit 451. Interactive TV scene: looks like a superficial video game choice.

We’ve seen techniques; techniques are the easy part, committing is the hard part.

4:30pm–5:30pm: “Designing Limbo‘s Puzzles”, by Jeppe Carlsen

The game has minimalistic design: no levels, no cut scenes, no power-ups, two-button controls.

Puzzle design principles: challenging problem solving, simple elements, few elements, complex problems but simple environments, no repetition.

Showed a chain puzzle. Need to get chain swinging properly so that, when you set it in motion, you’ll be able to grab it and use it to swing over a dangerous area. Only three elements: chain, button to control movement, dangerous ground. But still not super easy: need to experiment and analyze failures to solve.

How develop the puzzle?

1) Predict the player: how will they approach the scene? Come in from left, almost certainly press panel when passing it. See chain slowly moving left to right, try to get on before it’s too late.

So: need to be fast enough to catch the chain? Try and fail, but learn something about environment while doing so.

If chain had gone right to left at start instead of left to right player would instead have gotten on and started swinging right at the start, immediately getting much closer to the solution. So that would make the puzzle too early.

The player is my enemy: devious trick. The player is my friend: accessible environments. Usually start out too devious, make it simpler. Showed earlier version with two switches and a movable block to stand on; way too complex, but while playing around with it, realized that key trick of the more complex version is setting the chain swinging to make it possible to jump to it from a distance. Then simpler version with the final elements, but missing the key initial misdirection.

The correct solution must be easy to execute: worst case is if player concludes that a correct approach he’s doing is not possible. Conversely, wrong solution strategies must clearly communicate that they are wrong, so you learn from your death.

Now: level editor demonstration!

Place boy, floor; boy automatically runs around on the floor. Add slope, crate. Boy tries to push crate, but it’s too heavy. Fiddle with weight, boy then pushes it up the slope. (Very impressive automous boy.)

Example of trigger modifying behavior of objects. Timer script example. Changing gravity example. Have gravity periodically flip up, down.

Great for fast prototyping; not easy to read scripts, though, even in simple cases. All the symbols for a puzzle are on the screen at all times. So once puzzle is pinned down, often replace script with a few lines of code. (He later showed a real in-game puzzle where the script looked unworkably complex.)

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