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Thursday
Feb212008

GDC 2008, Day 1

Even though the Game Developer's Conference technically starts on Monday, I always call Wednesday the first day of the main conference. A lot of people ask me why I go to this conference at all. Other people at the conference ask me why I go to the actual sessions. All I can say is that it's a huge melting pot of semi-conflicting ideas. There's nothing else like it.

Player Generated Content
Daniel James (Puzzle Pirates), Brian Goble (Hipsoft), and a guy from IMVU talked about their experiences with player-generated content. Bottom line is that it's awesome, that it takes some system to manage it, but that it's really worth it. Goble explained that his word game that's been out four years now has had 2.9 million player-submitted phrases (kind of like Wheel of Fortune phrases). Only 19,000 of those are approved, but this is way more than the development team could have ever created (there are several requirements for what makes a phrase good for the game).

IMVU has a great business model. Players can create models/textures for avatars (in maya/photoshop) and upload them for sale. Users buy credits from IMVU. They spend the credits buying cool avatar stuff and 50% goes to IMVU, 50% to the content creator. The content creators do NOT sell those points back to the company to cash out, though. Some users use the points they earn to simply buy other people's cool avatar stuff. Creators that make more credits sell them back to customers on a secondary market (the price has stabilized to somewhere around 60 cents on the dollar). There's even a, uh, tertiary market of companies that buy points from creators, then do all the marketing and web transaction stuff needed to efficiently sell those points back to users. These companies take about 10% for their services. Bottom line is that money flows into IMVU and doesn't flow out. They make bank.

Microsoft
To give you an idea how much the Microsoft guy said "democratizing," he even had a joke about how he said democratizing too much. But you know what? Microsoft really *is* democratizing games if their new XBLA service works how they said it did in this lecture.

Step 1, join the Xbox Live Creator's Club. Use XNA Game Studio to make a game. When you're done, submit the game and fill out some forms about how much violence your game has or whatever.

Next, other members of the Creator's Club can play your game and rate it. They don't even rate if it's good or not, just if you were honest about the level of violence or strong language or whatever that you claimed you have. Once you pass this part (remember, you can't get vetoed for having a weird game or a bad one), then your game is fully available to ALL XBLA customers. Yes, all. Not just people in the Creator's Club. WOW! I've been waiting for that forever, awesome job Microsoft. I wonder about all those TCRs though, like the million requirements about naming the menus right, having help text right, when to use the B button for back and so on. Hmm.

Also, I happen to be in a super-fortunate position where I can get something approved on the full XBLA service in the first place without going the Creator's Club route (if only I had an actual team...please join me), but this Microsoft news is truly awesome for the industry.

Blizzard
When Rob Pardo talks,  people should listen. He spoke about multiplayer design. He first stressed that you must design multiplayer FIRST, or at least that's how Blizzard does it. Multiplayer games have more constraints and restrictions, so it's important to figure that out first, then do single player. If you did it the other way around you'd have to rip out a bunch of single-player stuff you came up with that won't work in multiplayer. As an example, Warcraft 3 had about 4 years of development time, but the entire single-player campaign was done in the last 9 months.

He spoke a lot about "skill differentiation." That means giving players lots of ways for them to show their skills. He warned against recent games going in the other direction, such as more auto-aim stuff in first-person shooters. "Twitch" gameplay is a very deliberate feature of Stacraft, he says, because it gives players that much more to master (in addition to managing their economy, multitasking, knowing the capabilities of each race/unit, and knowing the maps).

As one example, he talked about how in Starcraft you can only select 12 units at a time. On Starcraft 2 they argued a lot about whether you should be able to select unlimited, or keep it at 12. Keeping it at 12 gives the player one more thing to master because it's much easier to manage a large group of units if you can select them all at once. In the end, they decided to allow unlimited selection even though it goes against the "support skill differentiation" rule-of-thumb because players thought the restriction was arbitrary and felt like broken Ui.

I'm personally surprised they would even consider keeping the 12 unit selection limit because it tests a skill I find irrelevant. Fighting with the UI shouldn't be valued skill. And, in my opinion, neither should a whole lot of other twitch things. There's plenty in the realm of strategy, timing, and knowledge that differentiates players without needing arbitrary walls like 12 unit selection limits or 8 frame windows for recognizing Dragon Punches. While I'm interested in eliminating a lot of pointless skill tests, Pardo seemed in favor of providing a whole lot of these. He *did* make Starcraft, Warcraft, and World of Warcraft though, so what do I know?

Pardo said a lot of great stuff I totally agree with, also. He let out one of my secrets that game balancing has little to do with math. It can *start* at math, but there's no way around being a real *player* of the game. "You have to know the nuances," he said, "not just watch replays." He said things like how much this or that unit suffers from the pathfinding in Starcraft isn't in the spreadsheet math. And knowing that 1 zealot beats 2 zerglings, or whatever, is nice, but it doesn't matter to the level of detail some designers think it does. It matters if Protoss beat Zerg, but that's a much higher level, complicated question. Also, using just math to balance can lead you to very "boring, but fair" answers. Moves ideally *feel* extremely powerful, he says, even though they are fair. He advised against "super weapons" though. That means a weapon or move so powerful that you feel like there is nothing you could possibly have done. The nuclear launch in Starcraft is his example of how to do this right: it feels like a super-weapon sort of, but has LOTS of ways to counter it. (They neeed a cloaked ghost nearby, a laser sight, there's a red dot and a timer, etc, etc.)

Use your betas well, Pardo says, because you never get as long as you'd like. If there is a move or strategy you wonder about, start the beta with that move or strategy set to "too powerful" levels. Then people will try it. Then nerf it a bit. Then a bit more if you need to. If you start with it too weak, then no one will try it at all. When you make it more powerful, even if you really made it TOO powerful, no might notice in the beta because they have been trained to consider it pointless already.

I nodded in agreement as he explained that while you need to patch to fix balance stuff, you should NOT do this too frequently. If something appears too powerful, it doesn't mean it is (I've been saying that forever!). It's very possible that players will find counters and eventually the "overpowered" thing will seem pretty fair in comparison. If you fix every little thing that appears overpowered, players learn to not even try to counter anything. They just wait for you to solve all their problems. Let the metagame develop a bit before balance patching.

Don't have tons of special effects. Artists have a tendency to turn up the effects, he says, but it gets in the way of gameplay. Don't let them. He said Warcraft 3 has too many effects and sometimes you can't even tell what's happening.

Pardo also stressed having the right amount of complexity in your game. I have said for a long time that 30 moves is some kind of magic number that's about right. Pardo's magic number is 15 units in an rts. You want enough that players can be expressive and learn nuances, but if you have TOO many then it's a huge mess and no one even knows what's what. Amen to that. Incidentally, that's why Guild Wars is confusing. In Magic: The Gathering, there's a million cards, but it's a turn-based game where you can read each card. In Guild Wars, it's real-time and even though one character can have only 8 moves, it's 8 from a huge pool. It ends up with that "who even knows what's-what" syndrome (except for expert players).

I would love to make a "wow-battlegrounds" like game that has clearly defined classes/abilities. Not a million. Think about 15 units in Starcraft, 30 moves in Street Fighter, and 9 classes in Team Fortress 2. Manageable stuff that a player can wrap his/her head around.

Another amen to Pardo saying bigger maps are not better. More maps are also not better. You want as few maps as you can get away with and as small maps as you can get away with. I wish the media would figure this out. He said Warcraft 3 has about 8 maps per map-type because if it's too many, people don't really learn the nuances of the maps and it divides up the players too much anyway. If the maps are too big, they become less and less fun because travel time takes too long. Small maps are faster and just more fun.

I was amused to hear that Pardo keeps some stats secret on purpose because he's forced into this political game with the players. If players THINK a certain race/class whatever is imbalanced, then a snowball effect happens where more and more players jump onto it, fewer and fewer try counters of another race/class, and things generally get pretty unhappy. This snowball can startup even when players see stats that are like 51%/49% on something, so Blizzard never publishes stats what the win rate is between Orc and Undead, for example.

Pardo said a lot of stuff beyond all this, even. Good stuff, but that's enough for now.

Jonathon Blow
Jonathon Blow is outside of the box. I thought he had trouble expressing some of his ideas, but hardly anyone else is even attempting to express the ideas he brings up in conference after conference, so I'll cut him some slack. A lot of slack, actually, he deserves it.
He started with a quote from the New York Times review of Halo 3 saying something close to "As cinema evolved, it developed the ability to transform as well as to entertain." For some period of time, there mostly notable films had some kind of technical achievement, but only after a certain year (which I forget) do we now say films started to really have the power to "transform," meaning to make a real impact on people's lives. That New York Times Review said that games poised to make this transition from only entertaining to really transforming, and that Halo 3 is NOT a step toward that. Ha.

Mr. Blow's point is that he thinks we're not even as poised to make that transition as the NYT reviewer said. We're pretty far off, he said, and we're not doing great yet. Blow says he's matured over the years, but games mostly haven't and offer the same-old same-old without making much of a real impact on anyone.

To give some perspective, he talked about one way to make design decisions. In the consumer-goods view of a game, you make the game to make money. There's always design tradeoffs, so when you make your decisions about what to do and what not to, your guide is to choose the things that will make the game sell more. If adding only the minimum number of features to your yearly release is how you maximize money, then that's what you do.

Another way to approach design is to have some kind of "goodness" scale. Do X and the game is more fun (to you maybe, but also to your focus group of players, and your guess at the wide-world of players). You make your decisions in order to maximize the fun or enjoyment of the game. He pointed out how really stupid this all sounds, but he wants us to at least acknowledge that these are two different ways of doing things, and yeah, they are.

Then he really cut into the game industry. He said that we've gone way too far in making only games that are a certain type of "fun." They give the players fake challenges, then shower them with external rewards (rather than the real internal rewards). We make them feel awesome for doing the most routine things, and the whole sharade is empty and inauthentic. His example of one end of the spectrum was God of War (a power fantasy where you easily kill a zillion enemies who exist only for you to easily kill them) and on the other end, Peggle(sp?), a casual game that showers you with fireworks and sound effects when you solve the most easily solvable puzzles. (Disclaimer: I know the people made God of War and I happen to like it!)

Blow says much of the problem comes from games having trouble with the concepts of difficulty and challenge. If you want to tell a story, for example, then you need good pacing. If you want good story inside a first-person-shooter, then you just committed to some type of challenge-based gameplay. If it's too hard, then it ruins the pacing of the story. If it's too easy, why even having this aiming/shooting thing at all? So far the answer is to create these fake challenges that aren't that hard but kind of seem like you are cool for completing them, then occasionally tossing in a real challenge to help with the overall illusion.

Blow says we should be thinking of completely different kinds of challenge. Action/Skill challenge is one we do all the time, as well as problem solving. He asks what about challenges like curiosity, social challenge (trying to fit into an awkward social situation), perceptual challenges (like in Space Giraffe), ethical challenges, aesthetic challenges, or parasympathetic challenges (like in Wild Divine) to name just a few.

He also talked about how backwards it is to say "I'm going to make an fps, and I want it to have great story." He advocates we instead think of some genuine idea or emotional/intellectual territory to explore, and then ask "what kind of game can best explore this." He fully admits that this will not make as much money as a game that panders to the lowest common denominator, but that's ok. There are films like Transformers that are designed to make as much cash as possible. There are other films that are content with being seen merely by a reasonable number of people (rather than the highest possible number) and which have a real, deep impact on people, transforming the way they think and feel. The film industry has both and we need both.

Apologies to Jonathon for my poor summary of this. I could do a better job on this if I weren't trying to cram it in at 1am the night before Day 2.

Chris Hecker
I've only seen Chris Hecker a couple times and both times he seemed like he was using some sort of illegal stimulant. Apparently, he is just always like this. I took Chris's lecture as some sort of comedy experience or "ride." After 20 minutes of highly abstract stuff he said "From here on out, it's going to get a lot more abstract." He said this with a straight face and I literally laughed out loud. He also said such lines as "I don't know what this has to do with my lecture, or with games at all, but it seemed related (that was about Amazon's Mechanical Turk service). He also said "If you can invent something better than the triangle, then unlimited money awaits you." One of the questions at the end was actually "What was your lecture about?" and I'm not even making that up.

What his lecture was about is that there are few really hard problems we've solved in games that we solved really well. There is a similar character to these solutions. I won't go into the details, but let's just say they are awesome solutions. He talked a fair amount about "the triangle" being the biggest one, meaning a triangular polygon with a texture map. People tried all sorts of competing things like NURBS and other ways to describe meshes and surfaces, but the triangle apparently is the current king.

What he points out about this is that there's a bunch of STRUCTURE to a triangle...the xyz coordinates, the uv coordinates, the way it connects to other triangles, and that it can have a texture map. Then there's also the idea of the STYLE you can put on a triangle, namely the cool looking texture map. So programming people can play with all that first stuff because the computer understands the STRUCTURE of these triangles. Art people who know nothing about programming can play with the STYLE and create awesome 3D worlds and characters. Great solution!

He even said the triangle solution has had the biggest impact of any technoloyg in the history of games. But what SHOULD have had the biggest impact is AI. Too bad it hasn't.

Chris says that AI needs a STRUCTURE/STYLE solution. There needs to be some way that we can define a structure of how behaviors in AI work, then let non-programmers define the style of creating behaviors for particular characters. He means something deeper than just messing with stats on a spreadsheet, but not something that involves writing real code. Do you NEED code to describe AI? He says his first answer was yet, but now he thinks maybe not.

To sum it up in a catch phrase, he wants "The Photoshop of AI." A program that non-programers could use to create AI. He thinks we are no where near doing this now, but that it is possible. He said we're far enough away that we're better off not even trying explicitly for this yet, but on just generally understanding AI better first, and once we do, it will become more clear how to create that "Photoshop of AI."

Yes I know that if you know enough about AI to appreciate this, then my quick summary feels far too lacking. Sorry! You're better off talking to super genius Chris Hecker than me about this anyway. ;)

That's it for Day 1.

--Sirlin

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