Archive for May, 2009

GDC 2009, day 2

May 3, 2009

Thursday, March 26th at GDC was more of the same for me — hanging out with friends, relaxing, attending some sessions… Here’s the lowdown.

First thing I did was hit Hideo Kojima’s design keynote.

Solid Game Design: Making the “Impossible” Possible
Hideo Kojima

I was introduced to Hideo Kojima once, at a restaurant where we both happened to be dining, but he was pretty into his sushi at the time, and I was anxious to get to mine, so I don’t suppose he even remembers. I certainly didn’t get a chance to talk to him and, so, figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to hear what he had to say this year. It ended up being a pretty interesting hour.

His key point was that game design is the art of The Impossible Possible — an idea I find pretty appealing. The talk was about the road he takes to make that happen. For him, making impossible things a reality takes an understanding of Hardware Capabilities, Software Capabilities and what he called Design Ladders (or what others might call “Raw Creativity” or “Designing Around Hardware and Software Constraints”).

In describing his creative process, Kojima talked about identifying a problem (e.g., Get a Character Over That Wall) and then coming up with a bunch of ways the problem could be solved. Eventually, he settles on the coolest solution and executes that solution. I was dumbstruck that he goes to the trouble of thinking up all those answers but then limits the player to only one. In other words, the concept of choice belongs to developers, in Kojima’s world, not to players! Pretty much the same approach I like to apply to design, but applied in a completely different way. My thinking is, if you’re only going to offer players one way to solve a problem, well, for starters, maybe you really want to make a movie… But, if you’re going to go to the trouble of thinking up a bunch of ways to “get over the wall,” as he put it, why not attach some consequences to different wall-climbing approaches and let players in on the fun? Clearly, you can’t argue with the guy’s success, but I can’t help thinking how much players are missing out on…

Anyway, the talk was structured around the history of the Metal Gear series. Pretty fascinating. He talked about each game in the series and how he tried to set a new, impossible goal for himself and the team with each one. Reminded me a lot of how Richard Garriott approached things when he gave me a crash course in electronic game design back in the day. But instead of Richard’s “scrap everything and build from scratch” approach, Kojima takes a careful, incremental approach to innovation, introducing just one new thing each game, building on the foundation of earlier games.

Pretty interesting talk, but I’ve let too much time lapse and that’s about all I remember. Have to listen to the audio to refresh my memory!

Next I went to a talk about “physical play,” not so much because I’m all that into the topic (in fact, I wasn’t even sure what the speaker meant) but because I was intrigued to hear what a guy from MIT’s Media Lab might have to say to a room full of game developers. Turns out, it was a swell talk.

Physical Play: Siftables and Other New Forms and Formats for Interaction, Collaboration and Creativity
David Merrill

Merrill, an MIT Media Lab researcher (, talked about alternate control mechanisms (alternatives to keyboards or switches), from the Theremin to the mouse to multitouch screens to the Wii remote. The most interesting observation in his historical overview was that nontraditional control schemes work much better when there’s force feedback involved. Guess that makes sense.

The bulk of the talk revolved around Merrill’s own project – something called “Siftables”  ( Siftables are little square blocks, each with a tiny screen, motion sensors and proximity sensors. Each Siftable can perform simple functions on its own (displaying a word or a number or a mathematical symbol or a face) but — cool! cool! cool! — can respond to what other nearby Siftables are doing. (At the trivial level, think of the opening of the TV show, The Brady Bunch. A set of Siftables can recreate that people-in-a-tic-tac0toe board sequence and look at and respond to each other…)

The possibilities inherent in the Siftables idea are incredible. I want ‘em. Now. Merrill talked a lot about the educational possibilities and all but the “board” games you could create with these things would be incredible. Check out the website and you’ll see what I mean. We should all just start brainstorming now so we’re ready when Siftables take the world by storm!

Experimental Gameplay Sessions
Jonathan Blow et al

Okay. Have to calm down. Take a deep breath. Be rational. There. Better.

This was easily the high point of the show, for me. I was completely blown away. The level of creativity on display here was amazing.

First up, Jenova Chen (That Game Company) talked about the iterative prototyping process that led to the creation of Flower (a game that’s totally worth playing if you haven’t already). Like all of us, the Flower team tried all sorts of things — all sorts of mechanics and goals and challenges — before settling on their final, leisurely, nearly goal-free game design. If anyone doubted that iteration was the heart of game design or, at least, of game design in a world of unknowns and new ideas, this talk would have convinced you.

One of the speaker/demo-ers showed off his “4D game” — Miegakure — a game set in a four-dimensional space, unfolded so mere 3D mortals can (nearly) parse it. I barely understood what the guy was talking about and by the end of his brief talk and demo my head felt like it was going to explode, but, man, do I want to try to figure it out! Proof positive that there are whole universes (maybe literally) of new ideas to explore in gaming!

Some guys from an outfit called Hazardous Software showed off “Achron” — which looked to be a gen-u-ine time-travel RTS. Incredible. I’ve been wanting to do another time travel game since I worked on Martian Dreams but didn’t know how to pull it off. These guys seem to have done it. Just go to their website and check it out. Really cool.

I won’t bother with all the details (this is already going on too long) but I have to say I was especially inspired by Shadow Physics, Closure and Unfinished Swan. All of the presentations were terrific (and I hate to leave anyone out) but these three really did it for me on the gameplay, aesthetic and creative levels. The ways in which each used lighting, physics and rendering as gameplay tools should provide all of us non-indie gamers a little kick in the butt to ratchet things up, creatively. Simple, beautiful and at least potentially incredible games….

Basically, the whole indie scene is killing me right now. Something changed in the last year. If this session, and the IGF booth proved nothing else it’s that the indie game movement is really on the move. It’s not just  a bunch of guys fooling around or building their portfolios — it’s a bunch of talented, dedicated, professional developers making great, polished, playable games. I don’t know whether to root for them to get publishing deals (so they can keep making their own cool stuff) or whether to root for them to fail to get a deal (so I can hire them all!).

Frankly, as a player, I’m really drawn to indie games these days. World of Goo… Flower… Braid… Just great stuff. Everyone in the mainstream of games who attends GDC should try to squeeze into the perenially-sold-out Experimental Gameplay session — if not to be inspired than to be scared witless by the creative guys who are going to be stealing all our jobs if we don’t up our game dramatically!

(On a related note, there were a ton of games on display at the Independent Game Festival booth ( worthy of note. Tag: The Power of Paint… Pixeljunk Eden… The Graveyard… Night Game… Blueberry Garden… Feist… Musaic Box… Amazing stuff!

Oh, and if you want to read more about the Experimental Gameplay Sessions (and find links to a bunch of games I didn’t get into here), check out this article from the Guardian by Aleks Krotoski. Reminded me of a bunch of games I neglected to mention that you ought to check out. Too many games, not enough time or space to blog about them all…

So that was day 2 — quite the inspiring day, actually.