Day Five of the GDC: What’s Next?

There were a couple of really exceptional talks today; a perfect end to an amazing week. Here’s a brief overview of the sessions I attended:

The Story of Cave Story

Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, the one-man team behind the retro cult hit Cave Story, is really adorable in person. In his talk he presented a retrospective of the process of creating Cave Story, and his philosophy of design. It all seemed very interesting. Unfortunately, Pixel doesn’t speak English, and I somehow missed the fact that there were handheld translators available, so I had to sit through the entire lecture listening to it in Japanese. My Japanese is just good enough that I could sometimes tell when he was talking about one of the items on his slides (which were in English). Oops.

The Game Design Challenge: Bigger Than Jesus

The Game Design Challenge is an annual competition between a few leading designers in the industry; this year’s combatants were returning champion Jenova Chen, industry legend John Romero, and independent upstart Jason Rohrer. This year’s design challenge was to design a game that was in some way also a religion, or a religion that was in some way also a game. Jason, the first contestant, presented a really interesting idea called “Chain World.” Chain World is a Minecraft mod; there is only one copy of Chain World on Earth. The rules are basic Minecraft, with a couple of additions. The first additional rule is that you can only play once–if you die even once while playing, that’s it, you’re done for life. The second rule is that the game ends when you die–for this reason, suicide is allowed if you decide to finish playing at a certain point. Third, signs with text on them are not allowed, nor are you allowed to talk with others about what you’ve done. Finally, once you have played Chain World, you must pass it on to someone else who wants to play it. In this game, Jason was trying to communicate the sacred feeling of being a small, anonymous part of a long chain of history. He related a story to the audience of his first (and only) playthrough of the game with his daughter; the two of them were both excited, hoping to build many things that later players would be able to come across and explore. However, early on he encountered an unexpected dangerous situation (in accordance with the no-discussion rule, he didn’t say what) and was killed. It was, he said, the most poignant death he has ever experienced. His daughter burst into tears, and was so frustrated that she wanted to smash the flash drive containing the game. After his talk, Jason gave the flash drive to a member of the audience, so that they could be the second person to play it. Next was John Romero, who engaged the audience in a Twitter game. The first twelve people to follow the messiah (@messiah6502, the son of @god6502) became his apostles. Each apostle was then given a stack of sticky notes and encouraged to try to convert members of the audience by giving them the notes; they had only two minutes in which to do this. Once the two minutes were up, converts were asked to look at their notes to see if they had stars (representing miracles) on them. The apostle who had given out the most miracles was the winner. Last came Jenova Chen, who outlined his proposal for making TED into a game/idea-propagating religion. Essentially, this meant redesigning the TED website so that popular ideas (that is, ideas that have influenced the most people) are easily visible and more heavily promoted, so that speakers have their own pages and can list other speakers who have influenced them, and adding feedback loops so that the more influential your ideas are, the easier it becomes to spread them. At the end of the session, by audience vote, Jason Rohrer won a decisive victory.

An Apology for Roger Ebert

Professor Brian Moriarty (yes, his name really is “professor Moriarty”) gave what was probably my favorite talk of the entire week. I liked it so much, in fact, that I’m not going to talk about it here, as I’m too tired and it would take too long to give it the treatment it deserves. Instead, I will write my summary and reactions tomorrow and post them separately.

Classic Game Postmortem: Raid on Bungeling Bay

Will Wright is one of the most famous and influential designers in the game industry today. His contributions to the game development community include such landmark titles as Spore, The Sims, and Sim City. To date, The Sims is the best-selling computer game franchise of all time. Raid on Bungeling Bay, released in 1984, was one of the first games that Wright created, and the editor for the game went on to evolve into the original Sim City. The structure of the presentation was a fairly typical coverage of the game’s genesis, design, and production, though presented with Wright’s particularly clear and humorous style. There was an interlude in the middle of the talk, where he spent some time talking about the Soviet space program, which was a bit of a non sequitur although plenty interesting. Not a whole lot to say here; look up RoBB if you care to know more about it. One thing did interest me about his talk, however, and that was when he mentioned that one of his goals in making the game was to create a (relatively) large, “clocklike” toy world for the player to explore. That was something that really appealed to him in earlier games, he said, and he wanted to expand that idea and make a game “with a world big enough to get lost in”. This comment, though only mentioned in passing, really resonated with me because my favorite moments in games tend to involve that sense of place, of being lost in a self-contained world. During Q&A I asked him if he had ever thought of making a game that consisted solely of a world to explore–no objectives, score, or rules–and he replied that there are some games that already do this to a large degree. Myst, for instance, has puzzles and a plot, but it is not exaggeration to say that they exist almost as an excuse to give the player this world to explore. Some of the other games made by the Miller brothers go even further in this direction–one of Wright’s favorite moments in gaming, he said, was in just such a game, where he was standing outside at night, listening to the chirping of crickets. I wonder why we don’t see more of these kinds of experiences in games, given the profound impact they can have on a player.

General Impressions:

Overall, an outstanding end to a spectacular week. I’ve heard a lot of talks by some brilliant people and they’ve given me a lot to think about. Tomorrow I’ll finish off the week with a description of professor Moriarty’s talk and a summary of all I’ve learned so far.

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