My third year at GDC was as exhilarating, thought-provoking and completely exhausting as my prior visits; I wouldn't have it any other way. While most attendees I talked to were similarly enthused about the experience overall, a sentiment that frequently came up was that this year's conference 'lacked direction' compared to earlier years. People I talked with seemed to have trouble finding a thesis, and felt there was less overall excitement about making games than there had been in the past.

I won't say my reading of the conference is more correct than anyone else's, but I did attend a number of sessions that seemed to share a common thread. The message I got from GDC relates to thoughts I've been having on game design lately, so I may just be seeing it from my own skewed perspective. But GDC did at least help to push my thinking on these issues forward, for which I am grateful. It got me thinking about the character-driven "ungame."

The thread ran through the following sessions I attended: the Conflict Resolution Without Combat roundtable; Jonathan Blow's Design Reboot; Clint Hocking's I-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Games; Ray Kurzweil's Keynote, The Next 20 Years of Gaming; and the Are Games Essentially Superficial panel discussion.

I began the conference proper at the Conflict Resolution roundtable, which I simply observed. The intention of the session was right-headed: how do we stop making games that resolve conflict through killing and violence? Answers proposed by the attendees ranged from negotiation (talking your way out of a fight) to fleeing (the excitement of evading a fight) to bluffing and intimidation (scaring your opponent into surrendering from the fight.) What I wondered was, why is the fight presupposed? Why are we pitching ways to mitigate traditional, direct conflict between two parties? The value of this topic wouldn't seem to be in figuring out ways to extract the violence from the same old mano a mano, confrontation-and-domination style of conflict we're used to, but in finding entirely new ways to achieve the desired aesthetic response in the player-- tension, moment-to-moment investment, success. Someone brought up Sid Meier's Railroads, wherein conflict arises from a number of different railroad companies vying to buy up the same land and put each other out of business financially. Someone in the roundtable objected and said that the game described doesn't actually feature conflict then. I was bewildered; are we in the design discipline so fucking stunted that we can't classify anything but "kill or be killed" as conflict? Indirect conflict, like trying to succeed financially in Rollercoaster Tycoon, or emotional conflict like when you mistreat an NPC in an RPG (or hit an animal with your net in Animal Crossing) and then feel guilty about it, should enter our design vocabulary as easily as shooting, stabbing, or conquering an enemy nation through force.

Skipping ahead, I attended the Are Games Essentially Superficial panel, moderated by Rusel DeMaria and populated by Ken Levine, Chris Taylor, Peter Molyneux, and Louis Castle. DeMaria introduced the session by describing a game he'd worked on: it was set during the French Resistance of WW2. The player controlled Resistance fighters pushing back against the Nazi occupation. He described how he skinned the save/load screen with a calendar of the time period, and players could click on a date to read about an event that happened on that day in history if they so chose. However, he was quick to point out that the game itself was about fighting and explosions, so that it would "still be fun." Ken Levine talked about building a high-bodycount FPS then adding a small moral quandary on the side, of saving or killing the Little Sisters. Chris Taylor talked about making Total Annihilation, in which his goal was to create a "kickass RTS," but then tweaking the fiction of the game so that all the units on the battlefield were robots instead of people: a traditional war where technically no one died (he also noted that most likely "nobody but me" cared or even noticed this element of the game since it only really existed in the instruction manual.) Molyneux described the good/evil dichotomy which ran through his traditional combat-based hack-and-slash RPG, Fable.

All I wondered was, why was the approach to the "positive impact model" of game design taken by these industry luminaries simply to build familiar violent conflict and dress it up with a little side-order of moral intrigue or bloodlessness? I pictured someone ordering a Diet Coke with their bacon triple cheeseburger. I even took the mic during Q&A and asked, "Why are you pasting a history lesson on top of a game about fighting and explosions? Shouldn't the approach be to make the entertaining core interaction of the game be the positive thing itself, instead of having a little tiny positive thing off to the side of a standard commercial game? Can that be profitable?" I got shut down pretty harshly by DeMaria, who said "Yeah, but you just have to make it a really great game," and then announced that they were out of time. Thanks for that. The point stands that a true "positive impact model" of game design would come out of exploring entirely new, inherently positive core interactions, instead of dressing up the direct, violent conflicts we're used to with a little happy face button. Perhaps games like Animal Crossing, The Sims, Harvest Moon, or Chibi Robo are models we should work on applying to our mainstream, hardcore space.

In between, I attended Jonathan Blow's Design Reboot and Clint Hocking's I-fi talks.

Blow covered a lot of ground, but focused on the idea that both designers and players are guilty of taking the path of least resistance towards the feeling of easy validation: simply throwing tons of cannon fodder at the player and reveling in a false feeling of power as they're all mowed down, or a game like Peggle which is infused with so much randomness as to only be a step above Pachinko, then throws tons of flashing lights and fanfare at the player when they "win" largely by pure dumb luck. Blow pointed out that as games become higher budget, developers and publishers must attract the largest possible audience to recoup their investment. In the current paradigm, this means taking familiar, challenge-based genres like FPS or RPG, and making them wildly idiot-proof so that millions upon millions of players with little-to-no investment in the experience can plow through them without getting frustrated. This dilutes the core value of these experiences-- exploring the games' systems and using your own reasoning and understanding of the gamespace to legitimately prevail over your obstacles-- and leaves the player only with empty fanfare as they mindlessly mash through linear pathways, guided by the hand each step of the way so that their experience diverges as little as possible from any other player's. He suggested we needed to turn back the clock, scale back production scope, and begin exploring entirely new forms of interactive experience and challenge that might appeal to more people, as opposed to sucking the life out of interactions we've already charted to the nth degree over the last 10 years. We need to pretend our current understandings of shooters, brawlers, and RPGs don't exist; instead, we need to start shining lights down all those paths we've ignored in favor of safe territory that we know "works." We need a design reboot.

I strongly agree, though some of the thrust of his talk seemed misguided. He focused on how games should be legitimately challenging, or on the current crop being dumbed down. I agree that, with the current popular genres noted, overcoming mechanical or logical challenge is an important aspect of a satisfying experience. I just hope that he isn't discounting games where this sort of challenge-- the challenge of mastering an overt ruleset to avoid a failure state-- is foreign to deriving satisfaction from the experience. A true design reboot would wind back the tape all the way past the idea of binary winning and losing, of defeating or mastering a system whatsoever. What I'm talking about is coexistence with the system, instead of confrontation with it.

Hocking's I-fi talk described "immersion" as a binary state achievable by appealing to either the right brain or left brain-- either through fully engaging the senses via audiovisual output, or fully engaging the logic centers of the brain through elegant and satisfying interactive systems. He described the glorious failure Trespasser as an appeal to full systemic immersion: integrating what would traditionally be HUD elements into the gameworld itself, attempting to simulate a hunter/prey ecosystem, affecting a realistic physics system, procedural animation, and a player character that actually existed physically within the gameworld. On a different level, he described traditional games like chess as achieving mental immersion via outstandingly elegant overt rulesets which immerse the devoted player entirely within the possibility space of the pieces moving across the board. He said that while games like Bioshock successfully appeal to the senses, video games are regardless fighting Hollywood on their home turf when they try to out-audio/visual the movies. Games that concentrate on systemic immersion play to the strengths of our medium and draw the player into the game itself, as opposed to trying to keep their fickle attention with surface presentation elements.

The inherent conflict here is that games currently have a greater ability to present convincingly realistic visuals than convincingly realistic systems. Characters and worlds may look incredibly lifelike and appealing, but still behave in mechanically hollow ways-- a character like Alyx looks much more convincing than she acts. How can a game reconcile its ability to convince players to look without being able to convince them to feel? Aren't engaging systems inherently abstracted, like chess, whereas engaging audio/visual experiences inherently lifelike? Similarly, if we're talking about games as a mass medium looking to overthrow Hollywood, aren't "gamey" games which challenge the player to digest and master a unique formal ruleset the wrong way to go? Samyn's distinction states that "games are not what is interesting and new about this medium!" Games as we know them have been around for ages, and are occasional pastimes but never mass medium that is meaningful to people on a daily basis. Rules, winning and losing don't drive people to consume a creative work-- familiar human experience and emotional resonance are what speak to people, and overcoming a formal system is not expressive on these levels. I wonder if perhaps the most immersive systems are ones we aren't even aware of: the systems that invisibly govern our own world, like physics and biological processes, the ones Trespasser wrestled with, as opposed to the overt formal systems that govern a chess match.

Lastly, I'll mention Ray Kurzweil's rather astounding keynote address, titled The Next 20 Years of Gaming.
Kurzweil presented a great deal of very convincing research showing how the efficiency and miniaturization of computing technology has increased at an exponential rate and will continue to do so on into the future; according to his examples and projections, within 30 years we will be able to fully simulate a human brain, transmit sensory information directly into a user's nervous system via non-invasive technology, and track a person's full range of bodily state and motion via internal nanomachines. We as players will be able to believably inhabit artificial worlds populated by fully-simulated human beings. Technology will allow us to virtually exist in places we've never been before.

In other words, technology is marching towards the personal holodeck-- one that takes place entirely within the individual user's perception, and is populated by fully simulated human minds. In this world, people will use simulated experience simply to be in a place they currently aren't-- to exist in another locale, real or imagined, populated by personalities they've never met before. The rules of these simulated worlds will be the rules of our world-- physics, light and shadow, human perception-- not the simplified and abstracted rulesets of today's video games. These simulated worlds will not themselves be games; if one wants to play a game in a simulated world, they will pick up a virtual chessboard or soccer ball and issue their virtual companions a challenge. Just being there will be what matters.

So, like many people were asking after GDC08 ended: where's the point?

What I derived was that we as designers need to take ourselves outside of our current understanding of mainstream game development: we need to reconsider our presumptions of direct confrontation and conflict, formal rulesets and mechanical challenge; we need to consider video games as something other than games since, considering Samyn's distinction, interactivity is what's so engaging about the medium, not winning or losing; we need to stop diluting our current understanding of games to appeal to a mass audience, and instead find new sorts of interactions that don't rely on memorization, reflexes, mechanical facility and frustration as core dynamics; we need to look toward the future when our machines will be powerful enough to fully simulate our own world, when the engaging aspect of virtual experience-- which video games are the first formative steps towards-- won't be learning rules or skillfully manipulating an input device, but rather exploring an intriguing location populated by interesting people and things-- interesting because they are new and different, not because they are a challenge we enjoy overcoming. We need to start futureproofing our discipline now by laying the groundwork for that non-confrontational, informal virtual experience we'll be having in a few decades time. We need to start leaning on interactivity itself as the means of immersion, as opposed to well-conceived formal rules or convincing surface presentation. We need to give our players inviting, populated worlds, and then simply allow them to explore and enjoy, instead of exploit and dominate-- the character-driven "ungame." We need to start building our own future, now.

That's what I got out of GDC.


Don Pachi said...

That's a pretty heavy set of conclusions, and whether you meant it or not, at times it felt pessimistic. For comparison's sake at least, here are the three points I got from the show. To me they feel immediately actionable.

1) The importance of the intersection of narrative and gameplay. Portal and BioShock exemplify an exciting trend of building story and design recursively, with intent to evoke something beyond just fun or excitement. Frankly, to me it's less a trend and more like common sense, though it probably sounds really trendy to say that. In any case, I think these games deserve the praise and attention they continue to get, and their developers did an excellent job at illustrating how and why they did what they did at the show.

2) The rise of independent games. Microsoft's focus on XNA, the higher profile of the IGF, and the recent successes of games like Everyday Shooter all suggest a "power to the people" movement that's pretty easy to understand when you observe that innovation is more probable in a lower-consequence environment like independent development. There's still personal consequence at stake, but indie developers are basically free to explore their ideas.

3) Good games evolve through iteration. The best developers create their game through a planned, painstaking process of doing, evaluating, redoing, evaluating, and redoing again.

That's what I got from GDC. And if that show leads to more developers following in the footsteps of games like Portal and BioShock--not by copying them, mind you, but by trying to put themselves in the same mental frame of reference when designing their next games--then I'd say it was a pretty good show.

I strongly agree that game design is in its infancy, and I don't mean this response to be contradictory to anything you said. It's just another take.

Steve gaynor said...

re: Don, yeah I agree that there's a lot more to take away from GDC than just what I came up with. But I will say that I don't think my conclusion is pessimistic at all-- in fact, I'd be super hyped to work on the kind of "ungame" that it's made me picture in my head, and to play the final product. I still do personally love games as they are now, but I'm starting to see this other kind of thing coming down the pipe, and to me that's very exciting.

As to your point 2, I agree that GDC does a great job highlighting indies. It was cool seeing games that were in the IGF a year or two ago be nominated for GDC awards this year after being picked up by big publishers.

And to point 3, I don't know if you attended the Game Design Workshop, but iteration is at the heart of the MDA approach that Marc Leblanc and the rest of the Looking Glass school preaches. It's echoed in the approach that Valve takes to development, notably with Portal, so yes I'd say iteration and early, focused playtesting pay huge dividends.

Don Pachi said...

I see what you mean and take back the pessimistic remark on rereading what you said. It's very forward-looking and I took at as an indictment of how things are, though you didn't mean it that way. I do think the transition to the sort of un-game environment you describe is likely to happen gradually, one Portal-equivalent at a time. I'd be content to help blaze that path even if it had to happen slowly. For me, what's always kept me motivated is that every year there's not one but several eye-opening, amazing games to take inspiration from.

And I do agree with you that the interactivity is the thing that's special about games. My favorite games are Ultima V and Street Fighter II, but I don't remember the winning or losing about that. I just felt deeply connected to them.

By the way, I was at that "positive impact model" session and was pretty put off by it for the reasons you mentioned. On the other hand I really liked Jonathan Blow's Design Reboot. I think he admitted to being ambivalent about the whole "challenge" thing, and in the end, his only firm stance is that games shouldn't just be able "fake challenge" where you get your ego stroked for doing very little to seemingly accomplish a lot. I agree with that. Hard games can be a lot more rewarding than easy games so they shouldn't go away. I think he was just trying to say that difficulty, in and of itself, isn't necessary to games. And it sounds like you agree with that.

dw said...

"We need to give our players inviting, populated worlds, and then simply allow them to explore and enjoy, instead of exploit and dominate-- the character-driven "ungame." We need to start building our own future, now."

This sounds a lot like an MMO. When I played FFXI, the whole game was just a pretext to meet people.

The game made it impossible to do anything on your own. The point of the game wasn't to dominate, but to collaborate. The "challenge" or the "game" was just designed to pull people around a common goal so that they could have a communal experience.

The verbs I'd use to describe my experience are lead, talk, travel, help, and make friends. That kind of rich experience was the main course, not a side dish.