GDC 2009: Talking the Talk (Part 1 of 2)

Not bad, but there aren't enough tracks on velociraptors and terminator robots. We need to know more!

I wrote this article for Henry Jenkins, and am reprinting it here for you. Enjoy!

Hi Everyone! Henry, thanks for inviting me back for my annual round up of all the interesting things that happened this year at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). For those of you who are reading my posts for the first time I’m Eitan, local Boston game nerd and developer. I used to be a grad student at MIT doing games research, and now I’m the founder and creative director of Fire Hose Games.

But enough about me, let’s talk about games! This year I’ll be doing two posts: Talking the Talk, and Walking the Walk. The first (today’s post) will be all about interesting talks, lectures, rants, and totally inappropriate outbursts heard at the conference. The next post will be all about the amazing developers I was lucky enough to meet who are making things happen. So let’s get started – what was awesome?

Usability, Motherfuckers!
Sure, it’s a little self serving to talk about your own session first, but it was a damn good talk and I want you to hear about it. A lot of people out there can’t play video games due to some sort of disability (this applies to computer systems in general). However, with a bit of extra thought and planning game developers can frequently make their titles work for many of these disabled groups, and in the process make their game more usable for everyone. This can even lead to increased sales, so spending money on making a game highly usable will often earn money! I covered a bunch of concrete tips for things that developers can do to make their games more usable, and pointed out examples of games that exemplify this behavior (like Half Life 2 and Peggle) and games that could do so much more (like Trespasser and Puzzle Quest). If this sounds interesting you can grab the slide deck here.

My First Time – Games about Sex
Eric Zimmerman is a smart guy from New York who likes to make game developers think about how much more they could be doing. One of the neat ways he does this is with the annual Game Design Challenge, in which he goes “Iron Chef” on a panel of famous developers and asks them to propose a game with some sort of secret ingredient. This year the theme was “My First Time”, and the panelists had to incorporate their own autobiographical first time having sex. Erin Robinson and Heather Kelley came up with a hilarious Wii title in which you start by point and click your way to make the first move with an especially awkward guy, and culminates with you counting the ceiling tiles in his room. Sulka Harro deviated a bit from the autobiographical nature and proposed a user generated game in which participants tell the world about their first time, like in post secret. Finally, Steve Meretzky was both hilarious and touching as he recounted how he was a late bloomer and it took coming to MIT to find other nerds that were sufficiently weird like him to finally meet girls, and proposed a Second Life text adventure in which users must navigate the isles of awkwardness in a three part act in which you finally, after a long time, get laid. The audience voted and Erin and Heather ultimately triumphed, who were rewarded with a deck of sex cards for their efforts. Lots of fun!

User Generated Content and the Soviet Space Program, 1978 – 1989
This was one of the weirder talks I saw, and that’s really something after that sex panel. Chris Hecker started off by discussing user generated content in games, using Spore as an example. The talk was fairly straight forward, and Chris started walking through the “Sporepedia” to show examples of what people had come up with. Then the screen flashed, music started playing, and a slide with crazy spaceships was shown with the title “Russian Space Minute”. Will Wright (famous for The Sims and SimCity) then gets up and proceeds to give a 15 presentation on the late years of the Russian space program, outlining in detail the counterpart to the US Space Shuttle and the design process that went into making it. He finished by showing how the space program fell apart with the demise of the Soviet Union, and then just as quickly as he started Will sat down and Chris Hecker got back up and continued discussing Spore. The whole experience was especially surreal, as Wright’s appearance was completely unexpected and seemed to have nothing to do with anything. I later discovered that Will apparently likes to intersperse “Russian Space Minutes” into his talk because, well, he’s Will Wright, and he decided to make a guest appearance in this talk because he couldn’t in the next panel he was in, which was…

The (Positive) Future of Games
This star-studded panel featured Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, Lorne Lanning, Bing Gordon, and Ed Fries. Just like the panel moderator I’m not going to introduce these guys since they’re super famous and you have easy access to google if you don’t know. The talk centered around whether or not developers have an ethical responsibility to their users, and if they do how the games that are made can be beneficial to society. The talk was especially hilarious, and the inappropriate comments flew. Among my favorites? Paraphrased: “We should try to make the worst game possible. Perhaps a game about 72 Victoria’s Secret models, and they’re in heaven, and the game is in Arabic.” and “I would love to see a game like Second Life, but good.” The panel was all over the place, but generally they did seem to agree that it was important to make games that were useful in some way, whether by making people think more about the consequences of their actions or by encouraging positive behavior. On a related note, I went to a roundtable at the end of the conference on positive impact in games which was headed up by Rusel DeMaria, the panel moderator. I was pleasantly shocked to see how full the room was, there were many more developers there than I would have expected. Seems like a lot of people are taking this message to heart!

Constraints are your Friends
Perhaps not as flashy as the other talks, but a challenging discussion all the same. Dylan Fitterer (creator of Audio Surf) spoke about the path he took to success, starting with releasing a small game every week for over a year just to find his muse. The games were free, made him no money, and he didn’t get much acclaim, but it did serve to get his mind working about what he really wanted to do. One of the games, Tune Racer, was not especially popular on the site but Dylan felt it was likely one of the more interesting titles he came out with, and eventually it morphed into Audio Surf. He pointed out that unlimited freedom often leads to unlimited failure, as it is very difficult to figure out where to go next. Constraints, on the other hand, makes design much easier as it gives you bounds to work within. He gave the example of famous song writers like Kurt Cobain cuttings words out of newspapers to help write lyrics with the constraint of only using words and phrases they could find. It’s an interesting point, but I personally think that doesn’t apply to everyone – some people like having unbounded room to come up with ideas.

That’s it for today, see you next blog post!