Impressions from GDC Europe 2010

At GDC, I noticed how people’s eyes seemed to glow. They were passionate. Excited.

It’s something I don’t see enough among designers, I think. People who burn to create that indefinable magic that we dream of when we pick up a new game in the store. People who radiate the love they have for games.

Perhaps the eyes of the people at GDC had been ignited from the many inspiring lectures and encounters. Or perhaps GDC draws the kind of people who’s eyes remain alight, people who’s spirit never ceases to resonate with the craft.

It is probably both.

Monday

The definitive highlight of the first day of GDC was Warren Spector’s lecture “What Videogames Can Learn from Other Media… What We Can’t… And What We Shouldn’t”.

He compared games to other media, looking at in what ways they are similar and in what ways they are different. He did this in an attempt to identify what our medium is, what we are about (beyond basic notions as interactivity).

Warren, in contrast to people like David Cage (although his own session “How Far Are You Prepared to Go to Develop an Original Project?” was inspiring as well), embraces the uniqueness of the form of video games, instead of trying to emulate other art forms like movies. He pleaded with us not to dull the edges of the things that poke holes through the borders of our comfort zone. The zone defined by the narrative structures of movies and literature, that we perhaps still feel holds a firm grip on “real storytelling”.

One example is visual control. I have personally, as a game designer, found it to be somewhat of a limitation that we cannot control the camera to show the player things. Just think about what a subtle smirk can tell in a movie or in a book – in games this is a visual language that often isn’t useful, as the player might be looking the wrong way or simply aren’t close enough.

Warren’s session changed my old viewpoint of it as a problem, while talking about why it is inappropriate to use cuts or montage in games. He said that, while necessary in the language of movies, it removes the immersion or the sense of presence in games.

The player, not the director should be in control. The player decides what to focus on.

The player decides what to focus on.

This is hardly news, but it changed what I have felt was a weakness into what I now realize is one of the many unique strengths of our medium. The language of movies has become so intuitive to us that it is easy to see anything that limits it as a weakness. But it is anything but. We must free ourselves from the language of movies, to allow games to follow their own path, to have their own language.

On the same topic he stated that games are not about “magic moments”, highly scripted events that mimic those of movies. They are, however, about repeated actions (allowing for choices). Of course, this goes completely against what David Cage had to say, but while they both have a point, I feel that Warren is the one of the two that has the best grasp of the unique character of our medium. That said, I admire Cage’s goals of telling powerful stories in games, and I share his ambition.

Warren continued to talk about themes I’ve heard him talk about before; that idea of shared authorship – that designers should embrace players as partners. Allowing the players to share responsibility for the story allows them to explore, and learn about, themselves.

Not to be forgotten was “Limbo: Balancing Fun and Frustration in Puzzle Design”. I know that not everyone agrees, but I found Limbo to be an amazing game. What stood out from the session the most was that A) the lead level designer had no previous experience in the industry (perhaps that’s why they dared to break rules?) and B) that they wanted the player to die a lot and have fun doing so.

That players die a lot in that game has been criticized, but I think that without any real penalty it’s just a fun way to allow the player to explore the boundaries of each puzzle. I’ll write more about the game itself shortly, hopefully within a few days.

Tuesday

I’m looking forward to Guild Wars 2, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed ArenaNet’s session “Designing Guild Wars 2 Dynamic Events” very much. It’s even less of a surprise for those who know that I feel like dynamic worlds is the proper road ahead for MMOs. They mainly talked about leaving the traditional MMO quest structure behind for scaling dynamic events, that allow players to cause change in the world. Temporary and scripted, but still.

It surprised me how fearless ArenaNet seems, especially in comparison to most other MMORPG studios. Some design concepts that are more or less cemented as “truths” among MMO developers, ideas other studios wouldn’t dare challenge, are simply shunned by ArenaNet as “not fun”. Examples are the leveling curve (GW2‘s flatten early, because “leveling is a description of progress, not a means to an end”), killing off quests, and not preventing players to game the scaling events as they prefer people to have fun rather than to try to stop players from destroying their own play experience.

“Creating a High-Performance: An Interactive Dynamic Natural World” was about the design and technology behind the terrain creation and deformation in the coming game From Dust. The technology running the erosion, water flow and the creation of new land through lava seemed powerful and realistic. But the real joy was to see Eric Chahi present it, next to programmer Ronan Bel. Yes, that’s Eric Chahi of Another World fame! He was great to watch – an excited artist (if you’ve played Another World, you know he’s an artist), nervous, energetic, happy!

I’m looking forward to From Dust, no doubt.

Tuesday was also the day of my own session, “The Untapped Potential of the MMO”. I will publish my script and my slides online the coming week, so until then here’s the summary:

“MMOs relying on the player to weave her own story becomes an increasingly distant idea as developers borrow narrative traditions from singleplayer games. The gains of the designers’ sophistication in storytelling are easy to see, but what are the drawbacks of this path? Are there alternatives to handcrafted content, and what would the benefits of such alternatives be?

We look at the losing battle of creating the never-ending game, the limitations of static content in multiplayer environments, and the dynamic systems that could be the core of our worlds.”

I got quite a lot of positive feedback afterwards, which was great because you never know how these things turn out until it’s done.

Wednesday

I attended a panel discussion on Wednesday, called “3D Development Engine Shootout”. Imagine how bloody a panel of the bigshots from the industry’s hottest competing game engines (Unreal, Crytek, Unity, etc) must be. Or, imagine how tame it could end up when they try to be goodguys in front of an audience of potential customers. They all seemed to agree that they all had the most powerful engine, they all had excellent tools and… Yeah.

Still, good to see these guys’ faces, and I did end up in a meeting with Mark Rein of Epic/Unreal later that day.

The last session I attended was “Living City in Mafia 2”, where coder Jan Kratochvil took us through the details of simulating realistic city life, with pedestrians and cars and mayhem. Having worked with MMORPGs, this is an interest of mine. Jan didn’t discuss theoretics but was very hands on about how they did it, which was good. He gave details on the driving simulation (and how the AI used it), dynamic spawning and despawning of NPC’s and cars, and how to make the citizens behave like proper humans while roaming the streets. Actual practical knowledge I can use. If you’re doing something similar, ask him for his slides.

GamesCom opened for industry professionals on Wednesday, so I managed to try Guild Wars 2 and to see Funcom’s cool The Secret World booth, before my flight left for Oslo.

Now how do I get into the alpha of Guild Wars 2?

In the midst of GDC

I’ve had two really good days here at the GDC Europe, and it ain’t even over yet. So far, the highpoint of the sessions I’ve attended has been Warren Spector’s lecture. Man, that guy is inspiring enough that I could listen to him lecture for an entire day… but somehow I doubt he’d be up for it.

We’ll see if tomorrow can top it.

Return in a day or two, and I will have a lengthy post about the sessions and the conference, and in what ways it has made me wiser.

Oh, and I should make sure to shoot some pictures tomorrow.