Day One of the GDC: Meat, Money, and (Maybe) Meaning

Here’s a rundown of the talks I saw today:

Team Meat Presents: SUPER MEAT BOY, A Team Meat Meatmortem

Description: Team Meat (aka Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen) present a postmortem of their wildly successful game Super Meat Boy.

Takeaway: Tommy and Edmund are a somewhat disorganized but otherwise dedicated pair who worked themselves nearly to death making Super Meat Boy. They are both extremely talented people who epitomize the indie spirit of making fun, unique and polished games in a small team and with little or no budget.

Impressions: Focus was mostly on the business and workaday aspects of the project, with little time spent on describing the creative process or artistic concerns of any kind. Although part of this reflects the nature of any postmortem analysis, I think they also placed heavy emphasis during production on making a game that would be fun to play, and that would therefore sell well. Such an ambition is so ubiquitous in game design that it seems redundant to state it explicitly, but I think it’s an ambition that could stand to be questioned.

Leave Enough Room: Design that Supports Player Expression

Description: Randy Smith of Tiger Style games presents a game design philosophy that allows an element of creative expression on the part of the player.

Takeaway: Any time the player makes a choice that influences gameplay, that is a chance for player expression. Any time the developer restricts the player’s actions, opportunity for player expression is diminished. Allowing for player expression is a particularly appropriate design philosophy for indie developers, and can be facilitated by following the mantra of “leave enough room”: don’t tell the player what to do, empower the player to generate content, and encourage them to generate content by having the game respond to it.

Impressions: Again, although Randy touched on some interesting ideas concerning the expressive potential for games, his talk addressed these ideas within the context of industry optimization (i.e., making a game that sells). At one point, he began talking about how even very basic game mechanics such as goals and scores can implicitly restrict player expression by telling the player what to do (he used Scrabble as an example of a game whose expressive potential is limited by the requirement to maximize your score). However, instead of going on to ask how games might be made without explicit goals or scoring mechanisms, he asked how we can have goal-oriented gameplay and still allow for player expression. This seemed to me to be begging the question of whether goal-oriented gameplay is a good idea in the first place.

Turning Depression into Inspiration

Description: Michael Todd discusses the drawbacks of depression when working as a game developer, some strategies in mitigating those drawbacks, and some possible ways to turn depression to your advantage during the development cycle.

Takeaway: Michael outlined five basic strategies for staying productive despite depression: first, work on personally rewarding projects; second, let go of excessive perfectionism; third, work on shorter projects; fourth, measure your productivity; and fifth, design the game to suit your strengths, preferences, and resources.

Impressions: Though the majority of the talk was a rather cut-and-dried list of ways to stay productive and engaged in a project even during bouts of depression, Michael touched on some very interesting points. What I found most interesting was something he only mentioned towards the very end of the presentation; I would have been happy to hear a whole talk on the subject. What he said was that art comes from the “experience of the artist”, not from the medium itself. In the context of his talk, this meant that games made during a short timeframe tend to reflect the mood of the developer (e.g., depression) while they were making it, and that experience can be communicated to the player. Games *teach* through play, and a game made while depressed can teach the player a good deal about what it means to feel depressed. Of all the talks I saw, this one addressed the creative process most directly, but didn’t seem to say much that could not be applied equally to other media.

From AAA to Indie: Three Start-Up Stories

Desciption: Daniel Cook (Spry Fox, lostgarden.com), Ichiro Lambe (Dejobaan games), and Jake Kazdal (Space Channel 5, Rez) talk about how they made the transition from mainstream industry and AAA titles to independent development of smaller titles.

Takeaway: The focus of the talks was generally on the pitfalls and advantages offered by independent development, and how to navigate them in order to create a successful business. Jake’s talk was more autobiographical, and Ichiro’s a little more general, but all of them focused on the process behind the successful creation and maintenance of a start-up game development company.

Impressions: Again, very business-oriented. That’s to be expected, I suppose, in a talk with the word “start-up” in its title.


General Impressions:

I was expecting the GDC to be heavily focused on industry, but being here and listening to the talks has driven the point home. Even the talks that did address the artistic or aesthetic elements of game design did so from an industry standpoint, talking about how to use practices of good design to make games that were engaging and fun–in other words, games that sold. Though no one ever said explicitly that “fun” is what makes a good game, the assumption was implicit in all the talks I attended. It’s tempting to think I might encounter a different culture if I went to a different convention, and I think to some extent that’s true, but I also suspect that no matter where I go games will be considered, implicitly or explicitly, as an industry. Even the independent developers whose talks I attended today were tossing around buzzwords like “monetize” and “portfolio”. The ultimate goal, even for indies, seems to be the founding of a business on which they can make a living. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–I’m not blaming anybody for wanting to feed their families and pay their mortgages–but on balance, I think industry is incompatible with art. If we want to create artistic games we will need to build a different culture to foster them. Consider, for contrast, the independent film scene–can you picture those folks talking about trying to “monetize” their films? There seem to be very few starving video game artists–just a lot of unsuccessful video game developers who either persist and “make it big” or give up and go on to do something else, never bothering to question whether “making it big” is really what they should be doing. Even the quintessential starving video game artist, Jason Rohrer, is now making (and selling) games that are less about creative expression and more about cool gameplay mechanics. I think that if we are to create a culture of artistic expression surrounding games, it ought to have an element of the bohemian. To be strong, such a culture needs at least a few people who don’t care if anyone likes their games–or rather, who don’t care if anyone *buys* them.

Randy Smith touched on this topic, somewhat unintentionally, by pointing out that trying to maximize “score” in a game limits the player’s expressive capabilities–that’s just as true of the developers as it is of the players. If you judge your game’s success by the amount of revenue it generates, or by the number of downloads it racks up, you limit yourself to a select set of “best industry practices” which can choke creative expression and limit experimentation and spontaneity in a design. Only developers who aren’t out to win themselves fame and fortune, or even a living, will be free to experiment with the medium and discover new ways of telling stories.

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