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GDC 2009, Day 1

As usual, I will call wednesday day 1 of the Game Developer's Conference even though it has other types of sessions on monday and tuesday.

Iwata, President of Nintendo

First up was the keynote speech by Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo. I still remember his last speech years ago from before the Wii came out. He outlined Nintendo's entire strategy on DS and Wii, and the general reaction from the crowd was "nice wishful thinking there, bud." I was impressed with his plan and thought it was good, but I had doubts whether it would actually work. Nintendo went on to smash everyone with the DS and Wii, and his plan came true with even more wild success than he hinted at. My point is that we should listen to Mr. Iwata. I got there early specifically to make sure there was no chance I would miss his talk, even though waking up early is highly traumatic to me.

I'll first tell you the various odds and ends he covered later in his talk, before focusing on his main point. The odds and ends: 1) the Wii system software has been updated to version 4.0 (now supports downloading games to SD cards and loading SD cards of any size, not just 2 GB), 2) there is a pretty cool Wario Ware DSi game that uses the camera and after each session you can see (and trade with friends!) a video of how stupid you looked playing the game, and 3) a Japanese pop music star contacted Nintendo because he wanted to make a rhythm game, made it, and it comes out in the US in about 7 days. It's called Rhythm Heaven and we all got copies of the game for attending. The last time we all got copies of a game was when Mr. Iwata gave us Brain Age just before it came out, years ago.

But most of Iwata's lecture was about Shigeru Miyamoto. Iwata told us about how Iwata himself used to work at HAL Laboratories and how difficult it was being a developer. He says that today, people think that only Nintendo can be successful in selling a game on the Wii, but that he thinks that is not true. He understands why we'd think that because when he was at HAL, he thought the same thing. It seemed that Nintendo just had more money and that is why they could make a more polished game.

Meanwhile at HAL, he found himself in what he called the Death Spiral. He showed Nintendo a build of his game (I think it was the first Smash Bros, but I'm not clear which game he was referring to). Nintendo, possibly Miyamoto himself said "Looks great, with a couple months of polish it will be a hit." Iwata's heart sunk because he knew that his company would go bankrupt before then. If he did not ship that game in that fiscal year, his company would show a loss that year. Investors would pull out and creditors would ask their loans to be repaid. The company would die. Oh and by the way, he had exactly TWO DAYS, not two months, deliver that final build of the game to keep the company alive.

The Death Spiral he meant was actually the one where he released the game though. By releasing a game of lower quality, he will get lower sales, lower critical acclaim, and make it harder to fund the next game, which will get lower sales, too, etc. He said that he now realizes that it wasn't that Nintendo-made games simply had more money though. The difference was that they had Miyamoto, who has a completely different approach to making upward spiral.

Miyamoto, he said, has a process that has proven to be very solid (though the timing of Miyamoto's games are very hard to predict, and that makes him lose sleep over finances sometimes). Iwata said that the first thing to know about Miyamoto is that he likes to observe people and analyze why a certain activity is fun to them. Even when you take part in an activity you find fun, you probably don't try to break down the exact reasons or the key elements that make that experience fun, but Miyamoto does.

Next, Miyamoto often takes an experience he has studied from his own personal hobbies, and makes it into a game. Gardening -> Pikmin. Having a dog -> Nintendogs. Weighing himself every day -> Wii Fit. Iwata joked that while most employees are used to signing an NDA so they don't talk about what they do at work, he now makes Miyamoto sign an NDA to not reveal his current hobbies either. (Ha!)

Oh, and speaking of Wii Fit, Iwata showed a bar graph showing the total install base of each console. Of course the Wii is way out in ahead, over double the number of PS3s. But what's crazy is that the number of Wii Fit BALANCE BOARDS is almost as many as the number of PS3s! Hence a new rock climbing game he showed us that they are working on, but I digress. Back to Miyamoto.

We've heard many stories about how Miyamoto is a perfectionist, but Iwata said we should really understand the context of that statement. He says what Miyamoto is especially good at is perfecting the parts that should be perfected at each step, while ignoring and even preventing work on other elements that aren't important yet. He does a prototype phase for each game that has terrible graphics. We got to see the prototype for Wii Boxing, which had just colored boxes for graphics. This prototype phase has only very few team members (maybe 2 or 3) and ONLY focuses on the interaction. "Find the fun." There is a lot of trial and error as they look for this fun.

Iwata said the length of time a game is in this phase can vary wildly. For the DS game Rhythm Heaven (that I mentioned above), it took a year for the prototype team to realize that touch and flick should be the main touch-screen interaction for the game. In some games, this phase is much faster. I thought it was interesting that Iwata said once a concept enters this prototype phase (rather than just being an off-handed idea from Miyamoto), that Iwata makes it a point to not ask how the game is going. Miyamoto has several different games in prototype phase at any given time, and each one needs what it needs. Iwata feels that if he (the president of the company) asks how a game in that stage is going, it could have a very bad effect of rushing that phase. But rushing it can be disaster and cause lots of wasted money later. When Miyamoto says a game is ready to leave this phase and enter the next phase, Iwata knows that the concept is very solid and that it's ok to spend more money on it.

Another Miyamoto technique is the "kidnap." Apparently he walks surprises people in the hallways sometimes (while wearing a bandana over his face, if we are to believe the picture we were shown) and "kidnaps" people to do playtesting. These people are almost always people who don't even play games. Like maybe someone from accounting or the front desk or something. He stands behind them (Iwata was very clear on that point) and observes them play to see what they are stuck on and how they play. There are never focus group questions. Never any explanation asked of them. He just watches them play, that's it.

I think the discussion of Miyamoto would not be complete without mentioning the phrase "upending the tea table." This is term the Japanese use when someone says "no, no, no it will be nothing like this!" Apparently Miyamoto does this, but Iwata explained the context. This happens in the (unusual) case when the fun that was found in the prototype phase gets lost in the shuffle of production. It's when a game has gotten too cloudy of a vision about what it was supposed to be. Though Miyamoto does "upend the tea table" when this happens, he is supposedly nice about it and offers his explanation of exactly how the dishes can be put back on the tray, so to speak.

Anway, you get the idea. Iwata <3 Miyamoto.

Clint Hocking, Ubisoft

Next up was Clint Hocking who has now given quite a series of solid GDC lectures. I was a little worried during his talk because his style of presenting uses about 1,000 slides, most of which are jokes. The audience seemed to like this and I wondered about my decision to purposely use no slides at all in my talk that would be just a few hours later.

Anyway, was about improvisation. It was an extension of a previous talk he gave about intentionality. This is actually more interesting than it sounds.

When he says intentionality, he means the player's ability to make some sort of plan, then execute it. He again showed a video that a player made in Splinter Cell Chaos Theory where the player plays an incredibly elaborate practical joke on an AI character. Pulling this off required knowledge of like 9 systems in the game and how they interact. It's a great example of INTENDING to do a very specific thing, and having enough tools inside the game that allow you to do it.

Clint likes intentionality and told us about how he tried to design this into Far Cry 2, but how he actually failed completely in some regards. The real point of his lecture though, was how this failure lead to a success of a different kind.

He asked us to think about this mental model: plan -> execute. Then, we can compare activities that are mostly about the planning to activities that are mostly about the executing. He says that sailing a boat is mostly about planning because there's so many details you have to account for ahead of time, but when you finish planning, it's mostly smooth sailing. You mostly sit back and just let the boat go. Or an even more extreme example would be flying in an airplane because after you have made your arrangements and checked luggage and so forth, you just sit back and do nothing. (Apparently Clint's version of this is to sit back and watch Steve Martin's film Cheaper by the Dozen 2.) Compare this to driving, where the plan can be as short as "let's get in the car and go somewhere" and most of the work is in the execution phase.

Clint says that most shooters use very little planning and all execution. He says this is fine, it's fun, it sells, there's nothing wrong with it. He just wanted to make a game that didn't do things that way, and he wanted more...intentionality. And so his diagram was more like: plaaaaaaaaaaaan -> execute. He then explained what several of the game's systems actually were, but I think it's sufficient to just say that some of these systems weren't panning out, and he knew it. Some of them just weren't fun or were ignored by a lot of players.

When the planning part is too long and the execution part is too little, it just feels like solving a puzzle and that's not really what he wanted either. So if the early design was lots of planning followed by some execution...the later design shifted towards less and less planning. And just when it felt to me like Clint's entire plan was a complete failure here, we saw the light.

The light is that the real diagram of the game wasn't just a short planning phase followed by a short execution was a repeating cycle of plan/execute/plan/execute/plan/execute, and so on. This is what improvisation is. You have a plan, you start to execute it, but conditions change so you modify your plan, that goes ok for a bit but conditions change again, etc. Clint said that it's important that this involve the player experiencing small setbacks that are analog in nature. If you have a plan, but you experience a huge setback, you'll feel better off just restarting from the last save or something. But if you experience a small setback, you will try to go with the flow and overcome the disadvantage.

One example in Far Cry 2 is your weapon jamming (randomly). When this happens, the drawback is that you have to fix your weapon, but fixing it takes no longer than reloading so it's a small penalty. It can be just enough to get you to change your plan though. Apparently the game's wound mechanic and malaria mechanics also achieve these ends.

Although Clint said the setbacks the player experiences do not have to come from randomness, I think the ones he explained all did. This reminds me of the situation where designing a car to move with wheels is not necessarily the only way, but it's the best way we know to do it right now. Although randomness is often shunned in a competitive game, Clint is hitting on a concept that I have personally referred to as "good randomness vs. bad randomness." Bad randomness (in a competitive game) would be the Mario Party variety that is so strong that winner of the game is basically random. "Good randomness" in my book, is exactly the kind that creates the opportunity for the player to use improvisation.

A few of you are wondering how to classify the randomness of the tripping mechanic in Smash Bros. Brawl. Yeah, that's the bad kind. Rather than leading to improvisation, it just leads to you getting combod and dying or whatever. The best example I know of of the good kind of randomness in a fighting game is Guilty Gear's character Faust. He has a move where he can throw a random item (one from a list of a list of about 8). One is a bomb that blows up a few seconds later. Another is a mini toy version of Faust that floats down from above, controlling a lot of space. Another is a hammer that hits on the way up. Anyway, these items allow Faust to use a lot of improvisation to take advantage of whatever happens to be going on at the time.

Clint thought that Far Cry 2's focus on improvisation was actually the reason its review scores varied so wildly from below 6 to 10. While some players love the ability to (metaphorically) play improvisational Jazz like Miles Davis, many have been so beaten into submission by the more standard method of games that have come to expect playing in a much more rigid way.

There's only one point I disagreed with Clint on. He was very explicit in his definition of improvisation (I don't happen to remember the very long exact wording) and he specifically restricted it to NOT include the competitive part of games. Yes, his examples of improvising outside the confines of hardcore playing to win are all good, but I don't understand why he would be so careful as to keep this word outside the realm of competition. Surely it applies just as well there, as I think I hinted with my example about Faust. Your ability to improvise during a competitive game is, I would say, far MORE of an interesting skill to test than your ability to execute difficult dexterity maneuvers. So it seems like we should specifically include the realm of competition when we talk about what improvisation means in game, rather than specifically exclude it.

Roundtable on Downloadable Games

Here we had Mike Mika (former head of Backbone Entertainment), Kraig Kujawa and Adam Boyes from Capcom, Vlad Ceraldi from Penny Arcade Adventures, and Jonathan Blow of Braid.

This was pretty standard fare, mostly saying how damn hard it is to make a downloadable game when it seems like it should be easy. After all, Street Fighter HD Remix took forever, Penny Arcade Adventures was over budget, and Braid took like 3.5 years. The most notable part of this session was just how crazy Jonathan Blow is. I think I mean that in a good way though, because he is basically a more programmery and extreme version of me.

Blow offered the counterpoint that it's actually not that hard to make an XBLA game. He said the good part is that there is this long list of things you have to do to ship, but at least it's a list. You can do them, and when you have finished them, you are done. It's not really nebulous or anything. After all, he did it himself having never done it before. Sure it took him 3.5 years, but only 18 months of that was actual production phase with real art and he only worked 3-4 hours a day most of the time, by himself (he did hire one artist).

Mr. Boyes, possibly annoyed with Mr. Blow, asked how many people in the audience have $200,000 in the bank to spare, as well as 3 years of mortgage payments saved up. (One person in the audience did.) Mr. Blow was at his most extreme with his response here where he said that it really doesn't take any money at all to make a game. He paid for the art, but what if he had done all of that himself too, he asked. He could have developed his art skills and done it himself, not as good as what he paid for, but still maybe enough to make a profit on the game. (Really??) I mean what if he had lived somewhere else cheaper too, he asked. Or his mom's house? If you can do that you can just make the game yourself, he said. Now THAT is hardcore. I can't keep up!


And then there was my lecture on balancing multiplayer competitive games. I started by telling the MIT saying that "getting an education at MIT is like drinking from a fire hose...and that I will try to recreate that experience for you here." No slides. No jokes. About 1.5 hours of material delivered in 1 hour, somehow.

I prepared a 4-page handout in the Professor Tufte format. The good professor of conveying information has written and spoken extensively about how Powerpoint presentations lower the level of discourse by boiling down complex thoughts into simplistic bullet points. They are so low resolution that they are suited to displaying things like this:


  • See Dick run.
  • See Jane run.
  • Run Jane run. 


He also like so show this awesome Powerpoint version of Lincoln's famous speech, showing how stupid the whole thing is. Anyway, he likes this format where you fold an 11x17 piece of paper in half to create 4 pages of 8.5x11. It's just short enough that it seems unimposing, like anyone could read it (so they WILL read it). But paper is such a high resolution medium that you can fit a whole lot of information on there if you try. I have used that format before, for something secret, and I found the 4-page thing highly successful (everyone read it, but no one would have read a longer document). I also like this more than slides because it's so tangible, physical,and permanent that it seems like the precentor is making a commitment to the audience by giving it to them. So I handed out 300 copies of my handout before the lecture.

You can download it here, but remember that it's designed to be read on real paper, not online.

I have been to GDC for over 10 years in a row now and I have never even one time gotten such a handout from a presenter. Will my lecture be a turning point?

As for the actual content of my lecture, you're better off reading the handout and/or the four part series I wrote on game balancing as preparation to give the lecture (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). I was surprised at how big the positive response was afterwards, with many attendees wanting to talk to me further. Several said they got a lot out of it, one said it was his favorite presentation in the history of his GDC attendance, others asked me to speak again next year, and so on. A couple said they really like my first line about how I was trying to create the experience of an MIT lecture and they felt the design track at GDC had generally degenerated into too many thinly disguised pitches or comedy sessions and that they hoped my lecture would serve as the model of what an information-packed game design lecture is supposed to be like. Well gosh thanks, I didn't know people would like it so much.

As for speaking next year, I don't know. I felt it was extremely excessive for me to have to submit over 20,000 words of material this year (including the meticulously laid out 4-page thing), and I STILL wasn't approved at that point. Submitting almost half the length of my book just to be approved is not exactly an enticing prospect to do again next year. Maybe if enough people filled out positive evaluations this time, it won't be such a painful process to be approved next time. And by the way, did any other speaker at the GDC submit anywhere near this much before being approved? I highly doubt it, but let me know.

Also, I don't know what I would speak about next year. One person strongly urged the topic of "A curriculum for game designers." Hmm, not bad.

Chris Hecker

I really wanted to go to his talk, but there were way too many people who wanted to talk to me after my talk, so I didn't get the chance to attend his. Damn, oh well.

Reader Comments (1)

Whoa that section on forcing improvisation in games is really interesting. I'd love to see an article that delves into the good and bad randomness in the context of competitive games in some more detail, if there isn't already one on here that has escaped my attention. Also I wish I'd been able to see your talk. Your balancing multiplayer series is one of my favourites and has been a huge influence on me recently.

September 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTrevor Murray
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