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 for—CMP 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.