Flew into SFO, which was 20 degrees warmer than BOS and lacking in the person-high piles of ice and snow everywhere. As of Monday at 9:30AM this favorite thing about GDC.
Got to the hotel, checked in, was minorly skeeved out by the fact that the tiny complimentary shampoo bottle in the bathroom was only half full. Our shower has a rotisserie light, which I always get a kick out of because I don’t really understand them.
Realized I’d forgotten my Bonnies, aka a pair of shoes that don’t have a 3″ heel (unlike the other two pairs I brought). Did an emergency ten-minute trawl through a DSW clearance section and came out with a pair of pink Chuck Taylors — convenient, since my current pair of pink Chuck Taylors at home are dying and really need to be replaced. Feel rather smug about managing to not inflate the number of shoes I own.
Had a delicious burrito and even more delicious conversation with Corvus Elrod, someone who I met for 10 seconds at Login in 2010. He’s running for the IGDA Board this year, and I hope like hell he gets elected. (More info on voting in the IGDA Board elections here!)
Engaged in some highly out-of-character bickering with my partner – his enthusiasm at coming back for his ninth GDC and my trepidation at attending my first aren’t two emotions that combine well. The way people talk about this conference, sometimes one gets the impression there’ll be an official cult indoctrination and ritual sacrifice at some point in the schedule. At the same time, it’s no fun being the wonder-killer, especially due to basic lack of information or common experience.
Attended Jeff Ward‘s second annual pre-GDC board game night. Ended up playing Family Business under Brenda Brathwaite rules, which involves role-playing your character. Lots of yelling, “dis guy freakin’ dies!” Got a very lucky draw and managed to kill pretty much everyone at the table in one play to win the game. Got the hell out of there, since I’d clearly have a target on my back for any subsequent rounds. Then ended up playing a game of Bonanza and winning that too, also mostly due to luck. If someone started a conference just for playing card games and drinking gin and tonics, I’d buy a lifetime attendance pass for it.
Managed to go to bed before midnight, something I’m told I won’t pull off any other night this week.
Got out the door by 7:30AM to eat a truly mediocre breakfast at Mel’s Diner. Am told Mel’s will be too crowded from this point forward to eat there again; not sad. Reviewed all of the “sounds interesting” options I’d put in my calendar and made some decisions about what I’m actually attending today. (Side note: the ability to build and export a calendar is an awesome feature and I can’t imagine attending GDC without it.)
Walked around the convention center a lot, said hi to people, managed to run into Deirdra Kiai and Erin Robinson. Already have burgeoning desire to just sit and talk with people over coffee or drinks in a thinly-populated room somewhere, possibly in an alternate dimension.
Session: Social and Online Game Design 2010, A Year in Review (Nick Fortugno and Juan Gril)
- Innovative Platformers (new trend) (Level Up!; Continuity; Super Mario Crossover; Loved)
- Arcade Evolved (Give up, ROBOT; Space Disposal; Robot Unicorn Attack; Rubble Trouble; Freeway Fury; The Visitor: Massacre at Camp Happy; Flyde; Robot Wants Kitty)
- Play Together (Siege; Ponzi, Inc.; Backyard Monsters; Kingdoms of Camelot)
- Intelligent Puzzles (Grayscale; Roly-Poly Monsters; Liquid Measure; This Is The Only Level)
- Manage It All (Demons Took My Daughter; Steam Birds; Doodle God)
Side note: I was planning on linking to all of these games, but I’m lazy and overwhelmed.
Continue to not understand why everyone salivates over LIMBO. It was exactly like I Want To Be The Guy, but with no lights. Explain to me why I should care.
Glad to see people have stopped referring to online games as “casual.” Don’t think “social” is any better, since a lot of non-online games are social, too (eg: all of the board games played Sunday night). Don’t understand why they can’t just be “online games.” “Social” seemed to be referring to games developed for the Facebook platform, and I don’t understand why they didn’t specify their actual scope of games being evaluated. “Social” is a type of game play, while PC/Mac/Linux, every name of every console ever, and “online” all describe the platform the game is played on. “Social” and “Online” are not two platforms — if “social” is a platform, then where were the reviews of all the innovative multiplayer board games released this year? Just say “Facebook” if you mean Facebook.
Side note: Leigh Alexander ain’t nothing to fuck with. She had her Gamasutra article about this session written by the time the session was done.
Session: Care and Feeding of Your Independent Game Studio (Arthur Humphrey)
Mostly information that every start-up I’ve worked with is also figuring out. Also, the most basic rule of game design turned into marketing – make a polished version of your core mechanic of the game and sell that with promised ongoing updates rather than developing a “big” game with lots of feature sets before launching at all. Interesting point about “coercive conversion” – paying 99 cents for a game up front vs playing a free game for three weeks and then paying 99 cents to get an in-game item that allows you to win the game.
Traditional video game players are used to complaining about products taking your money undeservedly, but my instinct (which I cannot back up with any data, so feel free to prove me wrong) is that the broader consumer culture understands “trial period” and is less conditioned to expect to reach the win state without payment. I suspect if I asked my mom whether or not she’d have a problem paying 99 cents for a product she’d been using regularly for three weeks, she’d say no – she spends most of her time as a consumer in other (non-video game) markets, where the expectation is that you exchange money for goods or services to signify value. Traditional video game players seem to highly value their time invested in a game (usually translated to one’s level/score/rank/whatever) and so I can see how expecting them to pay for a game after playing it for a while can seem like a double-billing – they’ve *already* valued your game by playing it frequently and now suddenly you’re asking them to value it again. Sleep deprived and kind of hung over as I write this, so I can’t propose any solution (I’m not even sure I’ve articulated the problem well).
Lunch at ‘Wich Craft, om nom nom
Session: The Fantasy of Labor: How Social Games Create Meaning (Eric Zimmerman, Naomi Clark)
Games work not by fulfilling desire but by frustrating desire – the friction of not getting a pleasurable objective right away. Idealized/unreal version/concept of something is much more desirable than the actual thing – this works as goal formation in games. Eg: when racing, you wait for the starting gun because the reward of waiting to run and winning is more desirable than starting to run before everyone else. Fantasy of labor in games is the idea that if you keep working hard eventually you’ll earn a reward. The gap between the reality of labor and its fantasy reward is what makes games of labor work. Desire creates its own objects that are tied to reality but not realistic. This was one of those fantastic talks where every idea presented was articulating ideas that I’d kind of had floating around amorphously in my head, but was not at all capable of expressing. So everything made sense, I was able to follow along, but basically every sentence Zimmerman and Clark said was giving me the, “oh yeah!” lightbulb moment. So my notes on this are woefully incomplete, because I was too busy learning and thinking and being excited to be in a room with very, very smart people. (Darius Kazemi took much more detailed notes of this session, which you can read here.)
Meanwhile on Twitter, Brenda Brathwaite said she wouldn’t hire any game designers or interns who don’t know how to code. As someone who’s been working with a programmer to design a game, I have to say that the main wall I run into, even more than articulating and formalizing ideas and translating them into game mechanics, is even understanding what the engine we’re coding in can do. I ask my programmer so many times, “how hard is it to do [game element]?” Not knowing code is currently making me be that asshole I hate working for, who has no idea what they’re asking of others and can’t actually appreciate the work required to fulfill a request. The sooner you can internalize the constraints of the medium you want to work in, the sooner you can start designing games that are possible to execute, or at least whose difficulty and complexity you can accurately assess. If you’re a successful game designer and you don’t know how to code, I don’t know how you do it – just trying to do it this first time, I’ve already decided my ass needs to learn some motherfucking coding skills. Not really so I can code my own projects, but so I can be easier to work with *at all*.
Session: Leave Enough Room: Design that Supports Player Expression (Randy Smith)
Score-keeping cuts into player expression, as it instructs the player what behaviors you the designer think are right and wrong. Trying to subvert that with “agnostic unit design” – objects in game can act as enemies or allies based on context within the game and based on individual player’s goals. Again, this was a talk that was saying a lot of things I believe about game design and player expression but had never managed to really think through intelligently – not surprised AT ALL that Smith is 10 steps ahead of me on this.
Session: From AAA to Indie: Three Start Up Stories (Jake Kazdal, Daniel Cook, Ichiro Lambe)
In a day full of really great sessions, I think this one edged ahead to be my favorite. Notes I took on my phone (as my laptop was out of power):
Jake – Consider the end user, not the creator. Simpler proportions in character design means you don’t need realistic animations.
Daniel – Hiring process involves giving candidates short-term projects to see if they can finish something. Crunch is stupid, and if you’re doing it for more than two weeks, you have a bad manager. “Passionate” people translates to “obstinate” – better to be a team player who can complete projects.
Ichiro – Think holistically about the “segments” of your company (marketing, bug reporting, PR, community management, etc). Of the thousands of games you could possibly want to make, choosing to make the games that other people want to play allows you to pay your mortgage.
Met the guys who made Desktop Dungeons and decided that the only way I’m not going to negatively judge someone’s “fun” or “expressive” hat/goggles/whatever is if you’re the guys who made Desktop Dungeons. (Tip: your Jayne hat doesn’t impress me. Your attempts to cosplay Clint Eastwood in one of his Western films doesn’t impress me.) Handed out lots of business cards.
Ended up at dinner with a mass of people, who then ended up drinking together along with an even larger mass of people in the lobby of the W. Admired the size of Leigh Alexander’s suite and bathtub. Drank a lot of tequila. Talked a lot about Mass Effect 2′s dialog system. This sounds really boring because I’m pretty sure nobody involved wants me writing down the interesting stuff. In broad, general terms, I’m comfortable saying that I think THQ’s next offering, Homefront, seems problematic in a lot of ways, and their current marketing campaign is contributing to that impression. Also, the Nicki Minaj verse of Monster is awesome. Got to bed around 1:30AM.