GDC 2012: Day One

Congratulations! You’ve completed level one of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:

You saw a fascinating game design tool by Brian Moriarty:

Perlenspiel, named after Herman Hesse’s novel “Das Glasperlenspiel” (“The Glass Bead Game”), is a game design tool made for teaching game design. It’s a simple program both written and controlled by JavaScript, and the interface consists of a small grid of simple pixels or “beads”. What I found most interesting about Perlenspiel was its motivation–unlike in other media such as books, music, or even film, games have no common curriculum, no common notation for conveying the elements of a game, and no common “instrument” or engine from which to build. Moriarty touched on this last issue in particular at last year’s GDC in his apology for Roger Ebert: game design tools are slippery. Due to the constantly accelerating pace of technology, the tools for game design keep changing along with it. We don’t have anything even remotely resembling a common toolset the way a camera is common to all films, or the way pen and paper are common to all writing, or even the way the piano is common to many areas of music. Still worse, we lack a common notation of the elements that define our field–in fact, we haven’t even been able to agree on what the elements that define our field are! What’s a game mechanic? A rule? A goal? How do we measure, notate, and define these things, and are any of them even necessary for a game? These are all open questions. I’m optimistic that the pace of change appears to be slowing now that increases on graphical capability have slowed to a merely linear progression, and there seem to be tools appearing now–such as Unity, for instance–that stand a chance of becoming industry standards. I’m intrigued to see whether Perlenspiel helps fill the equivalent gap in our tools for teaching game design.

You were remembered by one of your favorite game designers:

While waiting in line for one of the Independent Game Summit talks, I ran into Dan Pinchbeck. I’d met him at last year’s GDC Europe and the Notgames Festival that complemented it, and had several interesting conversations with him about game design and game education. (At the time, I had been considering going back to school to get a degree in game design.) To my surprise and delight, he recognized me and we got to talking again. During the conversation, I received another pleasant surprise when he told me that he is helping to create the sequel to Amnesia: the Dark Descent! Amnesia, made by Thomas Grip and the other brilliant folks at Frictional Games, is the scariest game I have ever played. Dan’s game, Dear Esther, is one of the most surreal and atmospheric games I have ever played. Needless to say, I’m excited to see what they end up producing together. (If you haven’t played either of these games, I strongly encourage you to do so. You can get them both on Steam.)

You realized the key to making a standout game (with some help from Paul Graham and Jeff Hawkins):

During Nathan Vella’s talk on the making of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery, he spent nearly the last quarter of the hour-long talk discussing the importance of making your game stand out, of making it unique. As you may imagine, he was somewhat vague as to how to go about doing this–how do you engineer stand-outishness, exactly?–but I had an idea that maybe it doesn’t have to be as vague as it seems after all. In his excellent essay on essay-writing, Paul Graham discusses how humor seems to be closely connected with surprise, and hypothesizes that the two are often found together in good essays because surprise is the key to making something interesting. In his book On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins expands on this idea with his theory of intelligence, one implication of which is that surprise is just our brain’s way of telling us it’s encountered something new. That these different points–humor, interest, newness, and surprise–should all be connected strikes me as not only likely, but almost inevitable. Therefore, the secret to making a game that stands out from the crowd turns out to not be so complicated after all: just make something surprising. Take some expectation that your audience has (or several, if you prefer) and turn it on its head. Fly in the face of convention. Find something new and interesting and unexplored in a tired, stale format that seems like it’s got nothing left to offer. This is by no means easy–creativity never is–but it at least is specific. Too many developers, it seems, see the words “stand out” and think that means they need to add more features, or be better-polished, or have prettier graphics. These are all potential ways to stand out, of course, but they also happen to be the parts of a game that are easiest to mass-produce. That means that if you choose to focus on those aspects of your game–the “surface” content–you are choosing to directly compete against development teams that are already successful and are spending millions of dollars and tens of hundreds of man-hours on the exact same things. In order to stand out in that market, you have to not only do these things well, you have to do them surprisingly well, and this has to be done in direct competition with other people with lots of resources who are already doing these things as well as they possibly can. So, don’t try to out-do them; instead, do what they’re not doing or can’t do at all. Don’t have prettier graphics, have a unique style of graphics. Don’t have more features, have more interesting features. Don’t just try to please your audience–try to astound them. When you manage to do that, you’re already halfway to making a successful game.*

*Or, for that matter, any work of art.

Watching a movie, you found more inspiration for making games than you’ve felt since…well, since last GDC:

The evening concluded with a jam-packed screening of Indie Game: the Movie, followed by a panel discussion with the stars of the film. More than just a movie about video games, it’s a deeply personal and profound look into the lives and passions of four talented, creative people who just happen to be making games. Whether you’re into video games or not, if you ever get the chance to see this film, SEE IT. You won’t regret it, I promise.

You’ve unlocked level 2! Continue? (Y/N)

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