Thanks again to the kind folks at GameSetWatch for republishing this guide.

As in the past two years, I will again be attending the Game Developers Conference. The conference proper (following the first two days of summits and tutorials) begins on February 20th, featuring literally hundreds of presentations on all aspects of the craft, business and theory of video game development. Last year I shared my personal list of sessions to look out for (along with special guest Harvey Smith!) and this year I'm giving it another go. Below, find the wide smattering of sessions I'm planning to attend, schedule permitting. They're mostly in the game design track, but also feature a few entries from business and production. If you're going to be at GDC, hopefully this list will come in handy. Maybe I'll see you there!

Ideas, observations, and what the future holds

Ray KurzweilKeynote
The Next 20 Years of Gaming

Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.

As one of the leading inventors of our time, Ray was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition. He has received fifteen honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.

I always attend the keynotes (though I've sworn off any Sony keynotes that might occur in the future) and this one sounds like it will be particularly interesting and insightful.

Are Games Essentially Superficial? Exploring the Positive Impact Model of Design

Chris Taylor
Louis Castle
Peter Molyneux
Rusel DeMaria
Kenneth Levine

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: This panel will introduce the "Positive Impact Model of Design." The Positive Impact Model is, in part, a mindset adopted by designers to consider the ultimate impact of their games, and it is, in part, the beginning of a road map to creating games that add the ability to teach or inspire players while fulfilling the essential requirements of commercially successful games.

I think it’s something a lot of us wrestle with: does our work have worth? How can we enrich a player’s life through experience?

Design Reboot

Jonathan Blow

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Assaulting you with a variety of different perspectives about what it means to design and build a game, and the consequences of those viewpoints.

I’ve listened to Blow’s version of this talk from the Montreal conference, and look forward to seeing it live. Shares some conceptual overlap with the above.

Designing Conflict Resolution without Combat

Gordon Walton

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: Many games use combat as their conflict resolution medium. This session is intended to collaboratively explore non-traditional and innovative methods of resolving conflict within games.

Another issue of personal interest to me: how do we make engaging games based on character conflict without resorting to binary combat mechanics?

I-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Game Design

Clint Hocking

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: The immersive fidelity of a game is a quality not well defined in game design. This presentation identifies formal tools for enriching the immersive qualities of games with the aim of enabling developers to make better decisions about how to achieve the desired degree of immersiveness in their games.

Clint Hocking has made the most interesting presentation at each of the last two GDC’s I’ve attended. The Q&A session afterward feels more like a thesis defense. I have thoughts of my own all built up in opposition to the term “immersion,” so I’ll be interested to hear Hocking share his version of the concept.

The Future of Story in Game Design

Matt Costello
Tim Willits
Denis Dyack
Mary DeMarle
Matthew Karch
Michael Hall
Deborah Todd

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: The industry has made a quantum shift in what's doable in game design – great graphics and cool mechanics are now part of everyone's domain. And so, more and more developers and publishers are looking to the future and what differentiates their game from the rest of the titles vying for market share. And more and more, the answer is pointing to story and characters, with hot writers brought into the mix to create a deeper dimension in gameplay. Learn how and why hardcore game developers are incorporating the fundamentals of story development into their titles, and hear a variety of takes on why this benefits everyone from the publisher to the player in this first-time gathering of some of the leading names and some of the biggest games in the biz.

Games need effective writing to prop up the player experience, something which most titles currently lack. Always interesting to hear opinions on the intersection of game design and traditional story.

Treat Me like a Lover

Margaret Robertson

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: It sounds ridiculous, but thinking of your player as someone you'd love to love is a very effective shortcut to good game design. A player's relationship with a game is intimate, intense, based on trust, and at risk from boredom and infidelity. Ensuring your game behaves like the perfect date ensures players stay involved, stick with you to the end, and pine, love-sick, for your sequel/follow-up. This session shows how your game can pull this off.

The relationship between the designer and player is fascinating. Haven’t you played games where the designer seemingly regards you with outright contempt?

Practical Application
How-to's and best practices that may come in handy back at the office

'Do, Don't Show' – Narrative Design in FARCRY 2

Patrick Redding

Game Design/
60-minute Poster Session

Overview: Despite efforts to improve game storytelling, the best game stories remain largely non-interactive, achieving limited branching with dialogue trees and discrete choices. What happens when the storytelling maxim 'show, don't tell' evolves to become 'do', FARCRY 2.

From the title at least, this promises actionable knowledge on a right-minded approach to game narrative. Redding is Clint Hocking’s co-conspirator on the upcoming Far Cry 2.

10 Tips for a Successful Wiki

James Everett

Game Design/
60-minute Poster Session

Overview: This session will cover 10 tips for building, using, and maintaining a wiki on game development teams. These are concrete examples drawn from experience that will prove useful to teams who are investigating wiki use and those who have already deployed one.

We use a wiki internally at TimeGate, as do probably most developers at this point. Best practices.

Collaborative Writing and Vast Narratives: Principles, Processes, and Genteel Truculence

Ken Rolston
Mark Nelson

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Ken Rolston (MORROWIND, OBLIVION) knows that setting and theme are the fundamental narrative elements of vast, open-ended RPGs. Mark Nelson (MORROWIND, OBLIVION, SHIVERING ISLES) thinks Ken is a dangerous old crank, and knows that story and character are the fundamental narrative elements that drive players to keep playing vast, open-ended RPGs. In this presentation, Ken and Mark share various collaborative principles and processes evolved during a decade's labor crafting expansive RPG narratives, illustrating from their development experiences with gratifying salutary examples and bitter cautionary tales.

More thought on setting- and character-focused writing for games. The practice of threading narrative throughout a persistent gameworld is fascinating, and speaks more directly to “game-ness” than most other approaches.

How to Pick a Lock: Creating Intuitive, Immersive Minigames

Kent Hudson

Game Design/
20-minute Lecture

Overview: This lecture explains how to create minigames that use the controller in intuitive ways, reward player skill and provide variation while also minimizing UI in order to preserve immersion.

Applies to current assignments of mine.

Teaching Players: Tutorial and Opening Mission Design for COMPANY OF HEROES

Neil Jones-Rodway
Aldric Sun

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: With games becoming increasingly complex, designers have to work harder to introduce players to the game world and cater for players of all skill levels and experience. Drawing on examples from Company of Heroes, learn the basics of tutorial and mission designs that will keep game players, at any level, equipped and motivated to advance in the game.

How to address the much-hated integrated tutorial? My first impression is to make it avoidable altogether (by way of a skippable path ala Gears of War, or a simple menu option to start with the tutorial or skip straight to the campaign.) But even then, you gotta design the tutorial sometime.

Writing Great Design Documents

Damion Schubert

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: This talk centers on documentation best practices for both designers in the trenches, and offers strong strategies for leads attempting to manage their documentation process. This reprise of GDC 2007 highest rank talk has been updated to include feedback and suggestions from last year, as well as discussion of how to make documentation work with Agile and Scrum.

I’m lucky enough to have been assigned a few system design tasks on our upcoming project. All practical knowledge on how to best create these documents is much appreciated.

How to Go from PC to Console Development without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Elan Ruskin

60-minute Lecture

Overview: Significant challenges face a studio transitioning from personal computers to simultaneous home game console development for the first time. This session discusses how Valve met these challenges in its first Xbox 360 release THE ORANGE BOX, and offers best practices to help make attendees' first console release a successful one.

I haven’t played the Orange Box on a console, and have been wondering how Valve approached the transition.

Transition to Scrum Midway through a AAA Development Cycle: Lessons Learned

Asbjoern Soendergaard

60-minute Lecture

Overview: A postmortem over the change process going from a traditional waterfall development into an agile production environment. The talk will focus on the learnings from the adoption of Scrum on the CRYSIS production - midway though the production cycle. Topic's will include the lead's role in Scrum (how to manage and give creative direction), the signoff process, and coordinating the planning/development process between multiple Scrum teams.

An Agile Retrospective

Clinton Keith

60-minute Lecture

Overview: The session discusses the challenges of adopting agile beyond Scrum. Topics include adopting Extreme Programming (XP), Agile Planning, Lean Methodology for production and changes to Scrum that have been made to adapt to game development.

TimeGate currently affects some form of agile development. The more input on the subject the better.

Concrete Demonstration
"Look what we did"-- postmortems, stage demos and hands-ons

Casual Game Design: A Year in Review

Juan Gril
Nick Fortugno

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Casual Game Design is not an oxymoron. And 2007 was a really good year for it. Come and check out what were the key design elements in the top hits of the year.

I don’t pay much attention to casual games. I went to an IGDA meeting focused on casual game development, and the panelists up onstage were congratulating each other on “innovations” such as putting a sparkly gold background in their newest rip-off of Bejeweled. Hopefully this session will point out some worthwhile design elements in recent casual productions.

CRYSIS in the Making

Cevat Yerli

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: Cevat Yerli and other Crytek developers will give a behind-the-scenes look at some of the unique challenges that arose during the development CRYSIS, which took place simultaneously alongside the creation of the company's ground-breaking second engine revision: CryEngine2.

Crysis is the best FPS since Half-Life 1, hands-down. How did a game with such forward-thinking design and insanely high-fidelity visuals make it to market as a PC-only title in this day and age? I must know.

A PORTAL Post-Mortem: Integrating Writing and Design

Kim Swift
Erik Wolpaw

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Integrating story and gameplay is a daunting task for both writers and designers. PORTAL's project lead and its head writer discuss how they approached this particular problem during the game's development.

Portal, likewise, is an incredible and wholly unique production. The more I can hear about it, the better. This one’s sure to be packed.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions

Jonathan Blow

Game Design/
2-Hour Panel

Overview: A series of short presentations, where game developers demonstrate and talk about their new and experimental games. Independent games, academic projects, and AAA mainstream games are all represented.

I also don’t give enough of my time to indie/experimental games. This session has exposed me to some truly intriguing material the last two years I’ve attended it, and I doubt I’ll be disappointed this year either.

DataPlay: Living Games

Justin Hall

Game Design/
20-minute Lecture

Overview: Passive games offer the depth of MMOs without the time or hardware commitment, and the accessibility and easy fun of casual games without the mindlessness. Hall gives a demo of our Firefox browser MMO "PMOG" which follows you online creating a character, economy, and events from your web surfing.

Part of a rapid-fire triple session, I simply want to sit in on this one because the concept sounds interesting. What kind of myopic video game nerd would my PMOG character be?

From DOOM to RAGE: Pushing Boundaries

Matt Hooper

60-minute Lecture

Overview: Making games is hard, even if you've done it forever. The constant evolution of the industry keeps even the most veteran companies on their toes, and id Software is not immune. At id Software, we've always pushed technical boundaries and will continue to do so but now we find ourselves growing in many directions. Physically, our team is larger then it's ever been and we continue to grow. This session will address the growing pains and joys as we've moved from DOOM to RAGE and offer specific examples of why id Software chose its current direction, a "pre-mortem" if you will.

I’m quite interested in RAGE, id’s first new IP since Quake 1. I love that they’re breaking their own mold by setting the game in a mildly anime-inspired, sun-bleached desert wasteland, and including buggy racing (??) as a key gameplay element. Can’t wait to find out more about it.

Game Accessibility Arcade: Or How to Do the Jedi Mind Trick (Day 1)

Michelle Hinn

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: This session will be presented as "roundtables within a roundtable" -- attendees will be encouraged to move about the room, try out the variety of games at each game station and discuss the game design with the creators of many of the games.

The idea of sampling various games and providing feedback to their creators sounds like fun. Hopefully our time spent here will benefit the games themselves.

Game Studies Download 3.0

Jane McGonigal
Mia Consalvo
Ian Bogost

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: What do we know in 2008 about games that we didn't know in 2007? Find out in the third annual Game Studies Download. A panel of leading games researchers presents the top 10 findings in academic game studies from the past year and shows you how these cutting-edge findings are directly applicable to the design and business of videogames.

A direct feed of the “Top 10” academic game studies findings of the year? I haven’t followed the field too closely myself, so sign me up.

FABLE 2 –The Big Three Features Revealed

Peter Molyneux

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Peter Molyneux's stated ambition as a designer is to make FABLE 2 a landmark game. In order to achieve this three big design features have been added. The inspiration and rational behind these features will be discussed along with their evolution throughout the development process. The wider context of their impact and influence on the RPG genre with also be examined as the ambition is also to evolve the genre itself. The talk will be supported by retrospective videos as well as live game examples.

Molyneux is a bit of a GDC pariah in my mind. At the 2005 event, early in the conference he showed off a tech demo his people had been working on at Lionhead; then, as an invitee to the Game Design Challenge, he just showed that same unrelated tech demo again, and bullshitted a vague connection to Emily Dickinson. The following year, 2006, he ditched out on his scheduled appearances at the last moment because he was busy being bought by Microsoft. And last year, he took an hour to reveal his big secret feature of Fable 2: “a dog! Yes, a dog.” As far as I can tell, he comes to GDC purely for self-promotion. I think it’s funny that his presentation this year is baldly titled “Fable 2: The Big Three Features Revealed.” It’s nothing but a press conference, a chance to hype his own game. This is not what GDC is about. If I really want a preview of Fable 2 I’ll load up GameSpot. I will not be attending this session.

Storytelling in BIOSHOCK: Empowering Players to Care about Your Stupid Story

Kenneth Levine

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Here's a secret: If you're making a first person shooter, most people don't care about your story. BIOSHOCK took a genre that isn't generally known for its great storytelling propensities and made people care about the world of Rapture and it's inhabitants. It did this by inviting the players to participate in the narrative through their own investigation of the world of Rapture. Creative director Ken Levine will share some of the secrets as to how it was done.

The storytelling in BioShock, while no different in presentation than its forebear System Shock 2, was nonetheless effective in expressing the history of the gameworld through its characters, characters you never meet but feel a tangible connection to strictly via their stories. I doubt this presentation will give me a deeper appreciation of this aspect of BioShock, but it should be enjoyable nonetheless.

Nuances of Design

Jonathan Blow

Game Design/
2-Hour Panel

Overview: This session consists of a few short presentations; during each presentation, the audience actually plays game snippets that illustrate the speaker's point, rather than just watching. To participate fully, please bring a laptop running Windows XP with a reasonable graphics chipset (Radeon 7500/GeForce 4Go level or higher), and a pair of in-ear headphones.

Another game sampler. I’ll be interested to see how Blow uses the playing of games to reinforce his points in a way that video couldn’t accomplish. Bring your laptop.

The Emergent Gamer

Rod Humble

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: In this session, Rod Humble – Head of THE SIMS Studio at Electronic Arts – will reveal for the first time ever a new creative endeavor that makes game creation easier than ever before. Humble will discuss the rise of a new class of game creators and games, what it means to games as an art form, and how THE SIMS Label hopes to convert millions of players to game designers.

Another session that’s seemingly just a product announcement in disguise, I’ll be interested to see how “THE SIMS Label hopes to convert millions of players to game designers.”

Master Metrics: The Science behind the Art of Game Design

Chris Swain
E. Daniel Arey

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: With the dramatic increase in game complexity, production costs, and team size in recent years, teams and team leaders are more than ever in need of valuable and repeatable development processes, tools, and metrics to create, define, manage, and measure the vast number of play elements that make up a hit game title. But up until now, many of the development processes used by some of the best game developers have been either obscure, unknown, or undefined as an unknowable soft science behind the "creative process." We believe these processes can in fact be defined and learned, and that there are patterns and approaches to game development that dramatically increase the chances of a game's success. This talk is designed to compile and share with the audience the "best practices" of some of the industry's best practitioners.

This sounds horrible and frightening. Using collected metrics to divine a formula for “successful games?” Stare into the void.

Successful Instrumentation: Tracking Attitudes and Behaviors to Improve Games

Ramon Romero

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: This lecture will discuss the approach the Games User Research group at Microsoft Game Studios applies when instrumenting games. Numerous examples from successful Microsoft games will demonstrate how we use instrumentation to assist game designers in achieving their vision.

Another session focused on using player metrics to influence game design, I am again wary. “Instrumenting” just sounds terribly ominous. “Don’t instrument me, bro!” Can’t you just hear it?

Fun & Games
Frivolous sessions, just for kicks

8th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards
Wednesday, February 20th, 6:30pm - 8:30pm
Moscone Convention Center, Esplanade Room

The Game Developers Choice Awards are the premier accolades for peer-recognition in the digital games industry, celebrating creativity, artistry and technological genius. Industry professionals from around the world nominate for the awards, free of charge, ensuring that the recipients reflect the community's opinions.

Sure to bring a smile to one's face, though the awards played out better in San Jose’s civic auditorium than they do on the flat ballroom floor at Moscone. Still, looking forward to it. Hopefully they'll bring back Mega64's interstitials again this time.

The Game Design Challenge: The Inter-Species Game

Eric Zimmerman
Alexey Pajitnov

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: In the Game Design Challenge, talented designers tackle an unusual design problem. This year, returning champ Alexy Pajnitov faces off against two new competitors. The challenge: design a game to be played by humans and at least one other species. At the session, each panelist will present a unique solution to this game design enigma. In addition to the presenting designers, the audience plays an important role as well—by voting in the winner of the Game Design Challenge 2007. Expect to hear brave new game design ideas and unpredictable debate and dialog.

The Game Design Challenge is always great—luminaries engaging in pure game design without any commercial boundaries. Alexy Pajnitov stole the show last year, and I’m looking forward to his reappearance.

The nuts & bolts of making and selling games

Early Stage Funding for Gaming Start Ups

Matthew Le Merle

Business and Management/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Funding a game company is often the last, and most crucial step in realizing the vision of an independent development studio or gaming start-up. This session focuses on what independent developers and gaming start-ups need in their investment pitches to acquire the early stage funding they need. It involves a discussion of what works, what does not, and how companies can bridge the gap to VC funding. The session will include recent examples including arena.net, Telltale Games, Animated Speech, QB International, and others to give developers keys for success in the private equity market.

Might be useful someday.

Digital Distribution – From the Basement to the Boardroom Sponsored by Macrovision

Cal Morrell

Business and Management/
60-minute Sponsored Session

Overview: Advertising, retail, technology, production budgets and IPs all have a significant impact on the market, but what will make the difference in the games industry projected growth mark for the next 5 years? This session discusses the next set of trends that are expected to shape digital distribution for games.

Digital distribution is the future.

Small Studio Survival Stories

Jesse Schell

Business and Management/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: Small game studios have it tough. The only ones that survive are either smart, lucky, or more often, both. This panel is an opportunity for developers at small studios to share stories about what has worked and hasn't worked to keep their studios alive. Please come and share your story!

Working at a relatively small, independent studio, this seems applicable.

Sessions that address the history and broader social context of games

Developers in the Crosshairs: Mature Content, Censorship, and Design Choices

Daniel Greenberg

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: New studies show that although Mature rated games make up a mere 10% of the U.S. retail market, they have both the highest average gross sales and the highest average MetaCritic scores.

Censorship of Game Content - A Report from the Trenches

Lawrence Walters

Business and Management/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Get ready for a frank discussion of sex and violence in video games; and the government's recent attempts to censor speech. Included in the presentation will be an overview of the legislative attempts to restrict the sale of violent or erotic game content, and the continuing antics of industry nemesis, Jack Thompson.

As someone interested in making games for players like myself, I feel invested in the state of “Mature” games.

How to Create an Industry: The Making of the Brown Box and PONG

Allan Alcorn
Ralph H. Baer

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: The year was 1966. Television had a huge installed user base, but only featured a single, passive application with only a few channels. Ralph Baer decided there needed to be something more. He created the Brown Box, the world's first electronic console that enabled people to not just watch, but play Ping Pong on screen using connected controllers. In 1972, Magnavox launched it to retail as the Odyssey. Later that year, Atari and designer Allan Alcorn separately released PONG as a stand-up coin operated arcade unit. The success of both directly created this industry. Join Ralph and Allan as they describe what went right and what went wrong in engineering, designing, and championing their vision – and our reality -- of interactive games.

Sure to be a fascinating retrospective.

Stories Best Played: Deconstructing the Best Interactive Storytelling

Richard Rouse III
Steve Meretzky
Marc Laidlaw
Ken Rolston

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: This panel demonstrates that the best game storytelling can stand up to the best storytelling in any medium. A group of seasoned writer/designers will present their favorite storytelling games, with each being analyzed and deconstructed to see what make it work so effectively. In the end, a common theme emerges: the most successful storytelling games fully integrate their narratives into their core gameplay experiences.

An “expert look” at successful storytelling in games. Hopefully inspiring.

Hentai, Hardcore and Hotties: Sex in Games

Brenda Brathwaite

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: The international popularity of hentai titles and the North American fascination with "hotties" in video game world points to an increasing exploration of sexual themes in video games. On the hardcore fringe, dozens of virtual sex games are available for subscription or pay-per-play download, and the first MMOEGs have launched and are drawing players in the hundreds of thousands.

Again, I feel that mature issues shouldn’t be off-limits to video games. Are not sexuality and gender relations a more integral part of your own everyday life than violence and killing? Judging from the title, I’m really not sure this session will address the topic in a satisfactory manner. Could this issue get some thoughtful representation at GDC?

Preserving Games: Saving the Past and Present Now

Henry Lowood

60-minute Roundtable

Overview: This roundtable will seek participation and ideas from developers, publishers, players, collectors, and academics.

Game preservation is becoming a reality as more games are stored on commercial servers and made available through digital distribution. Even sites like The Underdogs are a great resource for games that are no longer available in any other form. I’m interested to hear expert opinions how the current state of game preservation in all its forms.

Finally, if you’re able:

(301)Game Design Workshop

Marc LeBlanc

Game Design/
Two-Day Tutorial

Overview: This intensive 2-day workshop will explore the day-to-day craft of game design through hands-on activities, group discussion, analysis and critique. Attendees will immerse themselves the iterative process of refining a game design, and discover formal abstract design tools that will help them think more clearly about their designs and make better games.

I attended the Game Design Workshop last year, and it was extremely enriching. The workshop takes a holistic approach to game design, focusing not just on video games but on creating systems of rules and rewards as a discipline unto itself. It feels like a companions piece to Rules of Play, if you’ve read that text. Participants collaborate to create one small analog game every hour or two of the session. My favorite aspect was making a flashcard version of Guitar Hero, which ended up being fun and expressing the original game well. If you can make it to the first two days of GDC, and you’re a designer or interested in design, I highly recommend you attend the workshop.

That's it, barring announcements of further sessions. Only another month and change now...


R said...

*sigh* I wish my company would send designers to conferences. They only send marketing and sales people which is utterly ridiculous. I can't wait for the podcasts and blog reports from the attendees though!

Michael Abbott said...

Many thanks for this helpful list, Steve. I'll be attending my first GDC this year, so your comments on each session are particularly useful.

If you come up with a trick to split yourself into two people during the conference, I hope you'll post on that too. It would give me a much better shot at getting to everything I'm interested in.

I hope to see you there!

Don Pachi said...

Thanks a lot for this list. I reckon you've just put together my GDC schedule for me.