Today was the first day of the main conference.
To give you an idea of the pulse of the industry, here's my summary of the vibe in as few words as possible:
"Facebook, iOS, social, monetization, clones, and I thought I was going to die making this game."
Thinking you're going to die making a game has been mentioned a surprising number of times by different people, all independently, and in each case is not meant jokingly but rather to convey the physical and emotional distress that people are feeling. We heard about it in great detail from the Super Meat Boy and Fez teams. A guy who gave the cloning games lecture also said it. Today I talked with Steve Swink, indie superstar who was working on the awesome Shadow Physics, but he cancelled it due to difficulties in the relationship with his programmer partner. He explained to me he had ulcers and other stomach problems and felt like he was going to die. Later in the day, Portal 2 won best writing at the game awards thing. Imagine what an "indie game developer" actually looks like. This guy was like, the opposite. He was wearing a suit I think, and looked like a mature adult. Anyway he mentioned that he thought he was going to die making Portal 2. So this is a like a meme but at the stage where people don't realize everyone's saying it.
Speaking of the game awards, in the Independent Games Festival awards, best game design went to Spelunky. Shout outs and congratulations to Derek Yu, who is a cool guy. The award for best game overall went to Fez, and Phil Fish was so choked up that he couldn't even speak. This makes the Indie Game: The Movie especially poignant, given that we saw his torturous backstory.
Today started with something the GDC hasn't done before. Every speaker of the entire 3-day conference presents all in a row, 45 seconds at a time, telling us what their upcoming sessions will be about. There was quite a diverse range of presentation styles, but I guess I don't have time to go into that. At the 45 second mark, the huge array of stage lights suddenly turn red and a very loud and unpleasant buzz sound goes off, so the speaker knows they went over and must stop. A few people incorporated the buzz into attempts at jokes, such as one guy pretending he was unsure what the buttons did on the podium. At the end, the organizer of the Flash Forward thanked everyone and said it reminded her of a story about her Grandfather who would always--BUZZ!!! *red lights*
I sat by Soren Johnson, which was an interesting perspective, given that he worked with Sid Meier for 7 years. Anyway, Sid's talk was kind of surprisingly basic. Or maybe not that surprising because the last talk he gave at GDC was also basic. I don't think there's anything wrong with his points, and I know he's super smart, I just wish he kind of went past the elementary level.
He said he "googled himself on the internets" and found that the most common thing said about him is the quote that "games are a series of interesting decisions." He says he thinks this was from his 1989 GDC presentation. Wait, that can't be right, I think that's older than the conference? I don't know. Anyway his whole talk was about decisions that we present to players.
Interesting decisions are ones where players don't just choose the same thing every time (if that's the case, let the computer do it automatically) and they aren't ones where you choose randomly. It has to involve actual thinking. He explained many different sources of interest, such as choices that have differnet levels of risk. Or that are short term vs medium term vs long term. Or that are tradeoffs along some other dimension. Or that even involve non-gameplay customization, as that is very interesting to lots of players too.
Sid cautioned us that we aren't "paid by the decision," meaning that game designers sometime have a tendency to think more decisions is always better. This can lead to overwhelming the player though. I sure know about that from working on my customizable card game, btw. In an attempt to make the gameplay deep enough to last years without new sets of cards, one version of it involved so many decisions, than even I was fatigued and exhausted from playing it. There is a limit where it's just not fun anymore. Apparently Sid ran into this same limit a lot in developing Civilization, so he'd cut the number of technologies or whatever available at any one time down to like 3 to 5.
I thought was interesting that Sid also emphasized what's really the flipside of his point, which is production values and the fantasy of whatever your game is about. What that means is, if you think of your game as a series of interesting decisions, then through that lens you're seeing "the system." You're seeing the functions and numbers and mechanics, and everything under the hood. Yes that needs to be good, it needs to create interesting dynamics and be balanced and so on. Sid is saying that when you feel you've reached that, you need to spend effort "remystifying" your game. So if your game is about pirates or something, make sure the art and sound and story and all the trappings that surround your game make the player really feel like a pirate, or feel they are in a pirate's world. The true power of the medium is when you have that fantasy AND you have the solid system of interesting decisions to back it up, says Sid.
A Fireside Chat with Markus 'Notch' Persson
Chris Hecker interviewed Notch (creator of Minecraft) on stage in front of a plasma tv showing an animated 8-bit fire. Chris Hecker often says the words double down, a priori, and bring to the forefront.
I think I got more out of the tone of Notch than anything else. I know nothing about him and played minecraft I think like 2 minutes, so he was completely new to me. He struck me as oddly jolly, like he kind of wandered in and will tell us some stories and stuff, but nothing too deep. I don't mean that as an insult or something, he just had an unexpected (to me) lack of intensity. I mean minecraft is some huge thing, so I expected him to be all Jonathan Blow, like lasers coming out of his eyes and hating lots of stuff he thinks is crap. Probably he'd be more likely to pet a cat.
In Minecraft, if you destroy the blocks that make up the base of a tree, the rest of the tree still floats there. Also, if you have a "tray of drinks" and spin that tray, the drinks won't fly off (no centrifugal force). Hecker's question here is why certain things are not simulated while other things are deeply simulated? Is there some underlying reasoning about what's abstracted out and what's included in the simulation? Notch said that the things he includes are the things that seemed right to him, and that's about it. He said the same thing about stuff like fire, water, wood, etc, that he chose these things because in each case, they seemed missing to him, so he added them. Hecker wondered if it was because of some carefully chosen set of relationships between all these materials that allowed crafting to be just right. Notch said no, it was just the stuff he wanted to add, then they figured out crafting like however made sense to him.
Hecker asked if there are things Notch regrets doing in the game, and Notch said that half-blocks are one of those things. At one point, everything was 1 meter cubes, with no other shapes, then they added some stuff that wasn't quite that, like axe blades and lanterns or something. Notch said the idea was stick to 1m cubes, but deviate when it just doesn't work, like water doesn't feel like water if you *only* stick to that, so minecraft water is a bit sloped. Also stairs don't look right either if you have no other sizes to work with. But putting in some half height cubes really just made people ask for more half height cubes for every material ever, and then why are you even doing that? All you're doing is increasing the resolution of the game and making there be 2x the cubes in the world, which is not something he thinks is good. Hecker asked if Notch could take the half height cubes out then, and Notch quickly responded "no." He said he can't remove anything that would mess up existing structures becuase people spend a long time on those.
Hecker said some hardcore people are complaining that Notch always makes changes the screw over the "mob grinders." A mob grinder is an elaborate contraption you can build in Minecraft that involves you putting a thing that spawns monsters such that monster automatically falls into some death trap like lava or spinning blades or something, then gets filtered down through a grate and a funnel, and then items pour out the bottom. There are competitions for how many items per minute can be created and I think Hecker said it's up to 167,000 items per minute (wtf??). Notch laughed and said he thinks that's awesome. He also said that such a thing has sooooo many dependencies on the very fine details of how the simulation works, that if you change anything at all about the game, it probably affects or somehow messes up mob grinders. He isn't trying to mess them up at all, it's just an unfortunate consequence of changing rules and AI and stuff. He said sorry about that, but it happens, but he needs to change AI and behaviors and that most people just have a new experience when that happens, and it doesn't mess up something they built. Removing half blocks would screw up way more people.
Let the Games Be Games: Aesthetics, Instrumentalization & Game Design
Oh my. I really don't even know where to start on this. At MIT there was a group called LSC that showed movies all the time, and I went often. My friend would ask me immediately after each movie what I thought, because he liked I had some clever line or something usually. After the movie A Clockwork Orange I said "I'm just glad I don't have to write an essay about that." A year later, I took a film class and I did have to write an essay on it. That felt like this. There was so much more content and nuance to Eric Zimmerman's lecture than to any other session so far at this year's GDC, that it's daunting to even try to summarize. I think most people probably didn't get it at all. Maybe I didn't either, but I think I did, so I'll try.
Eric explained that this is the ludic century. We've had the industrial age and the information age and now we're in the ludic age. Games are the now the most important cultural media and they define our times. This is obvious so let's not dwell on that. I'll add that he discussed the concept of "literacy" and that it can mean that a person knows how to read, but it also has other similar meanings, like knowing how to hear and understand a language is a form of literacy. There's even visual literacy, like understanding the various symbols of our world, or cultural literacy as in understanding customs. A basic understanding of interaction...of games...is part of today's cultural literacy.
The "instrumentalization" of games bothers Eric a lot. I think that's a long and strange word, and I would prefer something like "deconstruction." Or maybe another word I can't think of right now because I'm completely exhausted. What he means is thinking of games as a just a bare-bones system is losing the magic of them and kind of losing the point of them too. This is hard to explain because it sounds similar to stupid things he didn't mean. He didn't mean that researching games is bad, or that rationality is bad. He thinks such a narrow view of what games are or can be is bad.
In order to further the discourse, he wanted to look at a more mature medium that had lots of creative evolution as well as a full set of literature devoted to criticism of the medium. He chose the field of art, and he had some book that is like 1800 pages of collected art criticism essays from a wide range of people on a wide range of topics. He was overwhelmed at the prospect of just reading this, let alone figuring out which parts apply. So he picked a few pages at random and found that every single time, whatever he found was exactly applicable to games. He showed us 3 such "core samples" he drilled from this book at random, and in each case he showed the quote and then showed it again with "art" replaced with "games" and it was eerie how close the fit was. In some cases, the point was even *stronger* when applied to games.
One quote was about thinking about the artist (game designer) rather than the art itself (game itself) and how the ego, whims, views, personality, etc of the artist is flung forth like a lasso or something. The point being to look at art specifically as expression of the artist. A second quote was about the dérive, which is where you wander around a city and you simultaneously don't have any goal (so you wander without paying attention to where you're going) AND you pay attention to where you happened to be pulled. The point here is that the layout of the city itself, the flow of people, the landmarks, and so on subconsciously pull you certain ways and repel you from others. Seeing "city" replaced by "game" was downright spooky because damn did that quote work better for games than for cities, ha.
There was some third quote too, but you get the gist. There's a lot of different ways of looking at art (or games). It's not like you need to pick one. It's not like they are all right or all wrong. They are all right in their own way, highlighting some particular point. Some of these ways of looking at art or games overlap. Some ways contradict other ways. This is the rich and varied nature of these media, and shows how lacking an "instrumentalist" view of games can mean.
Eric made this point more clear, I think, when he talked about pickup artist techniques. He means the art of seduction, where you follow a certain method to get women to sleep with you. If you are not aware, there is a whole community surrounding this, and a very clear methodology to do it. Eric showed diagrams that look like flow charts of some computer program, but are actually diagrams of the conversation and behavioral techniques that the pickup arts recommend. It's broken down to a science and all.
By the way Eric says he tried this for a while, and that it is just as effective as claimed. He says maybe you are upset by the entire idea, and why is that? One thing that isn't much of a question is if it works. Yeah it works, and it's effective. Maybe you are mad that it objectifies women, he says. But probably you are mad because it instrumentalizes the entire thing. Love and relationships are complicated, magical, interesting, multifaceted and there's something very wrong feeling about reducing it to this diagram. And the same damn thing about games. So if the "right" way to look at relationships involves embracing the complexity of them, the many different ways of looking at them, and the contradictions that abound in them, that is analgous to embracing of art criticism that he talked about earlier. And this mechanical view that the pickup arts gives us...what's that analgous to? Gamification.
Think of the most terrible and cynical uses of games. The worst side of gamification, where it's transparent tricks and monetization schemes. The facebook thing with that energy meter you have to refill or something, spend some coins because we asked you at just the right time, which we know from mountains of metrics that we study, and buy these collectable doodads, and so and so forth. This kind of thing just needs a game tacked on somehow, because that's really incidental, you know. It's about the marketing and monetization and how we can use this to generate interest in the new Ford car or Marvel movie or whatever the heck.
Eric says that the instrumentalization of games is us showing the world our medium in the worst possible way. Remember how Roger Ebert says games aren't art and can't be art? Obviously that's stupid but the bad kind of gamification is fueling Ebert's argument. If a game is just an instrument to sell cars or virtual coins or whatever else, of course it's not art. It's just a lifeless thing. But the pickup arts existing doesn't make love not a thing. And the "answer" to the bad feeling you might get from the pickup arts is just to embrace real relationships. Meanwhile we are slipping into more of the bad kind of games and bad view of games, he says.
Eric talked about how our medium is seen, and how we're always apologizing for it, and he thinks that's terrible and we shouldn't. We should be snobs and connoisseurs of it, not apologists, he says. He said imagine if we were book lovers (as many of us probably are). We wouldn't be saying books are good *because* they can be used for education. We wouldn't even talk about educational books versus non-educational books "whatever that means." We wouldn't try to have book studies in schools, because books are just a thing you use to learn, one of many. We wouldn't talk about bookifying the world.
Eric also talked about what he calls an impoverished idea of what games are or about what education is when he looks at how some people view games a medium only to spew facts at students. But no other media is looked at so narrowly in education. For example, books CAN convey facts, but they are also enlightening, inspiring, spirit lifting, joyful, and so on. They offer experiences that are valuable in themselves, apart from the particular facts conveyed. And this is actually far more relevant for games, because games can allow you to deeply understand a system. Games are interactive systems, so you can get a sense for them--you can LEARN about a system--from a game more easily than you could learn about that system from another medium, at least often that's the case. He's just saying games are good for a whole lot more than conveying facts, but if you believed a game is only to convey facts (or to sell cars, or trick people into clicking the right buttons on the web, etc) then you're reducing them--instrumentalizing them--into this pick-up artist, impoverished thing.
To further illustrate his idea of not apologizing about games, he quoted someone, I musician I think, who at the end of some long thing said "And when people play Guitar Hero, they aren't *really* learning anything, but at least a few of them go on to learn rock and roll guitar." Eric was very upset over this quote, because he says the more you think about it, the more sinister that assumption is. The assumption is that playing rock and roll guitar--a thing considered horrible and satanic just a few decades ago--is here just assumed to be good. Why? Because music is part of the human experience, an expression, a form of play, a discipline of study, etc. I mean obviously music is good, right? Yet somehow a game is assumed not good in this quote. The game is only good if it is a tool--an instrument so to speak--in getting people to do an actual worthwhile activity, such as playing the guitar.
Eric says that Frank Lantz responded by saying that in a few more decades, the kids will be doing some other new fangled thing, and someone will say that that thing doesn't have any value, but at least it got a few kids to play video games.
The Future of Japanese Games
Keiji Inafune, formerly of Capcom, told us his view of games made in Japan. (Note to self, link my coverage of his GDC presentation from a few years ago, where he says the most shocking stuff I've ever heard at GDC.)
His presenation was extremely simple. When he left Capcom, he said Japanese games were in a terrible state and getting worse, and this caused much controversy, moreso in Japan than here. He now says that time has shown him to be exactly right. When he travels outside of Japan, he realizes that Japanese games are a "blast from the past." They are nostalgic like a '63 Corvette or something. Their time has past, and the best Japanese games can do now is update their old stuff in HD or port to new consoles or whatever. They are barely maintaining the old glory, rather than actually progressing.
He says technology-wise, Japanese games are behind Western games. He says that much of the advertising at stadiums or whatever, used to be for Japanese companies. Now it's for Samsung, LG, and other Korean companies. Korea is overtaking them in many kind of electronics, and currently those electronics don't sell well in Japan, even though they do in the rest of the world. This even further shows how Japan is falling behind.
Inafune emphasized over and over that Japanese no longer have the will to WIN and that this is the most important thing. He does have the will to WIN and he is trying and trying to bring this spirit back to Japan. He talked about this idea over and over, and he even drew a super hero that looks like Captain America except that it's like Captain Japan, and that he will somehow bring about this Japanese hero who will win and turn things around.
I actually thought the most interesting thing was what he didn't say, rather than what he did. It's what he thinks it means to win. He definitely thinks that what winning means is really high sales. He worked on Megaman Legends and then after that on Resident Evil 2, and he said it was night and day how one didn't sell, and the press didn't care, and other sold a lot and the press cared a lot. Winning means *global* sales, he was very clear about this point, and that Japan is not thinking globally. He said Capcom actually thinks more globally than any other Japanese game company, and that this needs to be way more common in Japan.
Anyway, it never would have even occurred to him to define winning as making something he loves. Or winning as a form of personal freedom or expression. I think his view of winning is completely antithetical to the entire indie game movement in the US, which is all about spirit and expression and doing your own thing. And it's kind of all about love. The opposite of all that is the US mainstream game market which is basically all about selling as much as possible as globally as possible. In other words, it's about winning, the Inafune way.