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GDC 2011: GAME DESIGN TALKS

03 Mar 2011

Today was pretty design-focused, from Clint Hocking discussing dynamics and meaning, to Frank Lantz dissecting Go and Poker, to a series of the ever-popular GDC micro-talks and a group of short talks about design failures and lessons learned.

Dynamics and Meaning

Clint Hocking sought to answer the question, "How do games mean?"

To help frame the question, he first discussed the Kuleshov Effect, a discovery from the early days of film that showed the importance of editing to that medium's generation of meaning. Kuleshov conducted an experiment in film whereby he juxtaposed footage of a man staring at the camera against three different shots: a plate of food, a dead child, and a lusty woman. When viewers were asked to interpret the man's emotions throughout this (very) short film, they identified the man as hungry, sad, and lusty, respectively.

The trick, of course, was that in each case the footage of the man was identical. These meanings - hungry, sad, lusty - were entirely inferred via juxtaposition... via the editing of the film.

The Kuleshov Effect provides a useful touchstone for understanding "how films mean". Clint's goal could be said to be the identification of games' equivalent to that.

Moving from film into games, Clint invoked MDA and professed his appreciation for that framework. In the context of MDA, Clint's thesis is that "games mean via their dynamics".

MDA of course stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics. Within the framework, dynamics are effectively the ways in which mechanics and player choices interact. Clint said he likes to think of MDA as "Rules, Behavior, Feelings" which is in some ways easier to understand.

Because dynamics are to some extent predicated on what the player does - how he chooses to interact with the game's mechanics - Clint indicated that it's important to abdicate at least some authorship; players must have the freedom to interact. Dynamics aren't a "feature" you add to your game: they are created by the convergence of the mechanics you author and the players you attract.

Go, Poker, and the Sublime

Frank Lantz believes that Go and Poker are gateways to the mechanism of human thought. What's interesting about them, he said, is that they are simultaneously laboratories for thought - as many games are - and also models of thought. The processes of playing these games lay bare the cognitive processes being used to manipulate their mechanics.

Go is a conversation between two players: one move as thesis, the next as antithesis, and the game as a whole being the synthesis. It's also considered in some ways a martial art, and a meditative and spiritual pursuit. The game expands to fill the mind.

Poker is a different kind of conversation: if Go is sacred, Poker might be profane. There is no honor, only deception. Poker is self-destructive, appealing to the thrill of losing and winning money, and what that means beyond the game. But the study of Poker is comparably deep, mathematical, and rigorous. Accomplished Poker players don't play for their current hand, and they don't play toward near-term results; instead, they play to maximize "expected value" over time, to create opportunities to win.

The ways in which people interact with these games has shaped the way the games interact with our culture. "We've played Go for centuries because of its beauty," Frank said, "but it's also beautiful because we've played it for centuries."

So what do we take away from this? Frank pointed to the power of abstraction: adults play Go and Poker, he said, because those games require less make-believe. "Thought made visible to itself" was another key point: games which promote thinking for the sake of thinking. And he reminded the audience that the design of the game influences the community the grows around it, implying that our responsibilities as designers reach somewhat farther than the sum of our mechanics.

GDC Micro-talks

A bunch of well-known developers gave five-minute micro-talks in today's rapid-fire session, but there are just three I want to highlight.

David Jaffe delivered a pretty cogent criticism of the long, non-interactive startup times associated with major commercial console games, drawing a comparison to the immediate accessibility of games on his iPhone, DS, or PSP. He suggested that games should dump the unskippable logos and splash screens, the long (also unskippable) intro cutscenes, the mandatory installs, the grueling loading times... and just let the player play the damn game. He also suggested that consoles should have a sleep mode, much like his handhelds, that allows him to boot straight into an existing saved game and bypass the startup gymnastics.

Jason Rohrer gave an impassioned defense of the role of challenge in video games. This may seem ironic, coming from the guy who became a household name with his art game "Passage", a decidedly challenge-free game. I get the impression Jason's grown a bit disillusioned with certain aspects of the art game movement; after all, he opened by talking about how art games often come across as boring, and said that if your game is driving players away, then you're not getting your message across at all. And of course his latest game, "Inside A Star-Filled Sky", is a recursive SHMUP with nary an art game pretension to be found.

And Brandon Boyer admonished developers to chill out the bombastic-ness of games and try speaking to subtlety on occasion. Like, we're adults now, and we have multi-faceted lives with ups and downs and noisy days and quiet days. Why do our games only seem to reflect one state of being?

The Failure Workshop

This session was all about a few different indie developers' past failures, and lessons learned from those experiences. The final takeaways were pretty standard for this topic:

  • Prototype
  • Playtest early and often
  • You can't polish a turd
  • Don't get lost down the rabbit hole
  • Keep an objective perspective
  • Always remember fun
  • Do the work

Conclusion

When I started distilling today's design talks for this writeup I had a strange and unexpected experience. While the sessions were good, in the sense that they were well-presented and entertaining, I didn't feel like I really got much out of them. This seemed strange: I'm a game designer, these were game design sessions, the speakers were well-respected names in the field... what could've gone wrong?

I started to feel like I've heard all this before. Yes, today's specific perspectives were novel, but the underlying topics, the key takeaways, were fundamentally familiar. I think I was in the choir, being preached to, and that thought made me question my motivation for attending these sessions at all. It couldn't really have been to hear respectable people confirm on-stage things that I already think, in order to make me feel better about myself... could it?

I'm three days through GDC, and so far my highlight of the show by far has been the Monday I spent at the AI Summit. Also, among the sessions I've attended this week, the AI Summit was by far the furthest removed from my existing knowledge, expertise, and experience.

I'm thinking that's a pretty significant correlation.

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gdc video-games