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Thursday
Mar082007

GDC 2007, Day 1

Game Developer's Conference, Day 1. (Well, I suppose it's technically day 3, but I like to call wednesday the first day of the event.)

In a session about protecting your IP, the speaker (a patent lawyer) mentioned offhandedly that patents are great to protect new game mechanics. The ghost of Thomas Jefferson was in attendance and he shed a single tear. (Related link.)

Sony unveiled its now Home thing for PS3. This is to be part of the PS3's OS and lets you create a (realistic) avatar and wander around a shared space where you can talk to other players, and also set up and decorate your own room, which is private to you and any friends you invite over. The graphics look really nice, and the whole thing is pretty cool, if you are joe gamer.

If you are me, you have a lot of questions. Why does every piece of software have too much loading time? (Why does God of War, also by Sony, have the least loading time of any disc-based game ever?) Do I have even the semblance of free speech in the shared areas? All the media I can download is wrapped in DRM and even if I *buy* it, I can't play it on any other platforms (including pc, ipod, etc), right? Why do I need a forum to communicate where I don't have free speech and I do have heavy DRM restrictions? Especially when it's restricted to only hanging out with other PS3 owners. Btw, Second Life was already made, and it's free, and you have rights. (Though I will say again: Sony's Home does have significantly better graphics than Second Life).

Warren Spector gave his talk about story games. I would really like to talk to Warren about this stuff as I like the area he's trying to explore. He wants to make story games that don't tell a linear story (God of War, every other game ever) yet don't give ALL the control over to the player (The Sims, Spore), but instead search out a middle ground. To use a simple, stupid example, he wants to give you the motivation and drama for *why* you want to go through that door, but all the expressive gameplay options that let you choose how you will do it. The more physics-based stuff behind this the better. That example is maybe too simple though, as he also emphasized he wants to give you real choices, not just a game on rails, so perhaps he'd throw in another door or two as well. ;)

Warren, if you stumble across this, I think very highly of you. I have these minor criticisms, though. First, the slides in your talk are really horrible and you know it, lol. Maybe rethink that huge red font with a white drop shadow. Second, you are too obsessed with story, and you know it. There is nothing wrong with making the kinds of games you talked about. Almost no one is making them the way you describe, and you really are leading that charge, which is great. But there is a lot of merit to games that have no story at all and there always will be. I learned a lot from playing competitive games, and I'll tell you right now, "story"--the kind created by an author--had nothing to do with any of that. Tetris, electroplankton, The Sims, Virtua Fighter, Mario Kart, and Tony Hawk are all examples of games (and non-games) that are not *about* stories at all, nor should they be.

That said, Warren showed a quote from Susan Sontag (that I can't find right now, ugh) where she said that a writer a really a student and judge of morality who expresses this through story. I happen to agree, which is why I have newfound interest in story games, if only they could shed their archaic trappings.

A lot of crazy things were shown in the experimental gameplay workshop. Too much to explain, and even if I did, some stuff is weird enough that it would take too many words to describe. I'll quickly mention that one person showed a quick game that simulates game development. This development is done by a legion of tiny slave-creatures who work in an old, broken down warehouse. You can click on them to kill the slower ones so the rest work faster. A dialog box asks if you want to try an innovative idea from one of the lower slaves, and the audience all yelled "no!" and laughed. So he didn't let the slave use his idea, and he killed more of the slower ones. But then some slaves stopped working and held up anarchy symbols.

Then the presenter showed a screen of options the player can set such as how much graphics vs. gameplay vs. marketing he wants to have. If you set gameplay to 100%, then the other two quantities go to zero, and so do sales. There are also other various settings, such as the wage of a slave, which defaults to $3. Anyway, he clicked on more slaves to kill them, but then he got the entire rest of them to stop work. The game popped up a message saying that no further work can be done because the slaves revolted. He can either cancel the game or ship it as-is. He decided to ship it. Then we saw the results screen showing 201% ROI (return on investment) and pretty good sales, but all the slaves died.

This game is really quite something, because when a game actually SAYS something--I mean anything--it's like water in your face. Games don't usually have much of anything to say. A game like this clearly could not be made inside the normal game industry, which again demonstrates how important it is to have any indie voice.

In a *very* packed session about MMOs, we have panelists Raph Koster, Rob Pardo, Mark Kern, Daniel James, and a couple others. They all had really good comments about where the genre is going, how to compete with WoW and how not to compete with it, and how large the genre really is, even without WoW being counted at all.

At one point, Daniel James (Puzzle Pirates, Bang! Howdy) said something close to "I'm not sure if I should move my company offshore now, or in a few years. Who knows what the US government will say about any MMO such as mine...will they say my players are gambling? That they are engaging in virtual sex that they don't like? Or some other ill-informed thing? I probably need to move my game to a jurisdiction that is more into the idea that people can do whatever they want than America."

OUCH! Our founding fathers just rolled over in their graves, because that country was supposed to be America. I don't doubt anything James is saying though, and he went as far as to say that the innovations in MMOs (and he didn't mean MMOs that look anything like WoW) will not come from the US, because our regulations are not conducive to, well, freedom.

Raph Koster repeatedly made just about everyone in the room feel dumb by rattling off subscriber numbers about 9 different times for a bunch of MMOs no one in the room had heard of. He listed a couple that he said had higher subscribers numbers in north america than World of Warcraft. Many of these are web based. Many are originally from countries outside the US. Many are not even for gamers, and a couple are for kids. He reminded all of us over and over that our perceptions are way off, because the mainstream gaming press doesn't cover these games, but they DO have the numbers and small budget MMOs are taking off...and it's not the ones being sold in retail stores.

The Game Developer Choice Awards had better production values than ever this year. Huge, huge thank you to Tim Schaefer for doing part of the presenting. Tim showed us all how much impact and humor you can get out of just a few words between awards. He obviously wrote his own lines and has great comic timing in delivery. It almost makes up for the first 15 minutes of Psychonauts. Thanks Tim!

The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Shigeru Miyamoto, who was actually there to accept it (he speaks tomorrow). I felt genuine happiness to share the honor of giving him a standing ovation. He said that the name of the award seems to imply that we think he's done making games. He then said that he hopes to keep doing this for a very, very long time. The crowd gave thunderous applause.

Ok, that's enough summary for now.

--Sirlin

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