A Game Developers Conference 2008 postmortem

The 2008 Game Devel­op­ers Con­fer­ence was a bit of a con­fus­ing expe­ri­ence for me. To begin with, I felt out of place. Any­time I intro­duced myself to someone—“I’m an inter­ac­tion design­er, I work freelance”—I would usu­al­ly get a blank stare. (Not many inde­pen­dents mak­ing a liv­ing in the games indus­try it seems.) At a lot of the talks, I was struck by the huge gap between the prac­tice of UX design­ers native to the web, and design­ers work­ing in the games indus­try. I’m gen­er­al­iz­ing here, but I’ll give some exam­ples:

  • Game design­ers still don’t strive to under­stand their audi­ence and the expe­ri­ence they’d like to have.
  • Game design­ers still don’t under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the web. They very rarely embrace the web way of doing things.
  • Game design­ers quite often aren’t able to think on dif­fer­ent lev­els of abstrac­tion about their medi­um, art form or what­ev­er you want to call it.

If that doesn’t get me flamed, I don’t know what will.

GDC 2008 was huge. By far the largest con­fer­ence I have ever been to. I heard some­one men­tion the num­ber of 16.000 but I could be com­plete­ly off. The pro­gram com­mit­tee obvi­ous­ly went for quan­ti­ty over quality—I attend­ed some real­ly great talks, but also some real­ly bad ones. In addi­tion it was hell to fig­ure out where to go. In hind­sight I missed out on some great ses­sions. Appar­ent­ly every­thing was record­ed, but they need to be paid forCMP appar­ent­ly think they’re doing the games indus­try a ser­vice like this. I think not.

GDC Mobile in par­tic­u­lar was a weird, depress­ing affair. The mobile game indus­try seems to have defined itself in such a way that there is no way for it to actu­al­ly suc­ceed. The major­i­ty are still try­ing to deliv­er a con­sole-like expe­ri­ence on a small screen, com­plete­ly miss­ing the poten­tial of the medi­um. Sigh.

Some themes I spot­ted:

  • Tech­niques for enhanc­ing cre­ativ­i­ty: Annakaisa Kul­ti­ma, a (game)researcher at the uni­ver­si­ty of Tam­pere in Fin­land pre­sent­ed game-like tech­niques for idea gen­er­a­tion. I’d par­tic­u­lar­ly love to play around with her NVA cards. Sam Coates and Graeme Ankers of SCEE showed how they’ve improved inno­va­tion and con­cept cre­ation using a whole range of tech­niques includ­ing lat­er­al think­ing.
  • The web way: There were some hap­py excep­tions to the gen­er­al igno­rance of the pow­er of the web. Justin Hall demoed PMOG—an excit­ing con­cept using the web as a gam­ing plat­form. Hope­ful­ly this will start a whole wave of “datagames”. Raph Koster blew me away with his very techy ante­mortem of Meta­place—a com­plete rein­ven­tion of MMOGs built from the ground up both with and as web tech­nolo­gies.
  • Sto­ry, dra­ma, nar­ra­tive, blah: “The audi­ence are not your mom. They don’t care about your stu­pid sto­ry,” said Ken Levine, writer and design­er of the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed BioShock. I’m still not sure BioShock is actu­al­ly as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as peo­ple make it out to be. But Levine’s approach to sto­ry in games—having mul­ti­ple lev­els of detail that can be con­sumed as the play­er sees fit and telling the sto­ry through the environment—makes sense to me. I enjoyed Peter Molyneux’s demo of Fable 2 most­ly because of his crit­i­cism of Amer­i­can prud­ish­ness. “If this were Ger­many I’d be naked on stage right this moment.” Molyneux attempts to cre­ate dra­ma through sim­u­la­tion. Offer­ing free­dom of choice, but choice with con­se­quences. I won­der if this is a road lead­ing nowhere…
  • Mobile: Some peo­ple attempt to play to mobile’s strengths, with great suc­cess. DC of Pikkle in Japan showed a lot of crazy-ass Flash Lite games that are deliv­ered over mobile web. These mobile social games com­plete­ly cir­cum­vent the car­ri­ers and con­se­quent­ly dis­rupt the whole mobile mar­ket over there. Shades of Playy­oo here—although Pikkle has the ben­e­fit of 90% Flash Lite play­er pen­e­tra­tion, where­as in Europe we’re appar­ent­ly on 20%. Equal­ly true to mobile’s nature but offer­ing a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence is loca­tion based gam­ing. Jere­my Irish talked about the ori­gins of Geo­caching and showed won­der­ful work he is doing at Ground­speak. Loca­tion based games are full of emer­gent com­plex­i­ty. I enjoyed hear­ing that Irish tries to have play­ers be in the world in stead of the screen when play­ing.
  • Mis­cel­la­neous: Sul­ka Haro’s talk about Hab­bo was sur­pris­ing­ly thought­ful. Lots of good stuff on iden­ti­ty play and how Habbo’s lack of explic­it sup­port for it is not hold­ing play­ers back—on the con­trary, less fea­tures seems to cre­ate more space for play. Takao Sawano of Nin­ten­do delight­ed me with an in depth look at the evo­lu­tion of the Wii Fit con­troller. Secret of the big N’s suc­cess is clear­ly the close col­lab­o­ra­tion between its hard- and soft­ware divi­sions. Rod Hum­ble unveiled The Sims Car­ni­val, EA’s con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tin­u­ing democ­ra­ti­za­tion of cre­ative tools (again rem­i­nis­cent of Playy­oo). Hum­ble proved to be a very knowl­edge­able not to men­tion fun­ny speak­er. See­ing Ralph Baer and Allan Alcorn play PONG on the Brown Box was awe­some.

There was more—I’d love to go over all the won­der­ful indie games I saw at the IGF and else­where for instance—but these were by far the most enjoy­able ses­sions for me. If you’re look­ing for in-depth reports you could do worse than to start at Gama­su­tra. For me the real chal­lenge begins now—digesting this and mak­ing it applic­a­ble for inter­ac­tion design­ers on the web. I have a huge back­log of small­er posts lying around that I want to get out there first though (and this one has grown far too large already). So I’ll end here.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

5 thoughts on “A Game Developers Conference 2008 postmortem”

  1. I total­ly agree with your view on GDC Mobile. It was just sad and same old same but I think the inno­va­tion cards idea was a bit lame. I didn’t get how it would be dif­fer­ent from the cur­rent ones like Ideo cards, GameGame cards… what ever there are. It would be nice to see such cards uti­lized IRL (out­side uni­ver­si­ties and their fun­ders (=companies)though). And I sup­pose there were over 18000 vis­i­tors!

  2. Hi Peck­osB, thanks for drop­ping by. I liked the cards, but then I’m a suck­er for cre­ative tech­niques. I don’t know the “GameGame cards” you men­tion, but I think Annakaisa’s cards are unique because of the con­strained set of nouns, verbs and adjec­tives they con­tain that are specif­i­cal­ly tai­lored to mobile casu­al games. I’d love to give them a go in IRL, if I ever do I’ll post about my expe­ri­ences.

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