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.

Reboot 9.0 day 2

(Wait­ing for my train home to arrive, I final­ly have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to post this.)

So with Reboot 9.0 and the after-par­ty done, I think I’ll briefly write up my impres­sions of the sec­ond day.

Stowe Boyd — Good talk as always, offer­ing a new def­i­n­i­tion of ‘flow’. I guess his attempt to have peo­ple open them­selves up to the ben­e­fi­cial sides of being inter­mit­tent­ly con­nect­ed was a suc­cess.

Marko Ahti­saari — Inter­est­ing char­ac­ter with a good sto­ry to tell. His free mobile oper­a­tor for teenagers scheme made a lot of peo­ple curi­ous. (Free stuff always does that, it seems.)

Lee Bryant — Very fit­ting to the theme of human?, a touch­ing sto­ry of how for­mer inhab­i­tants of a Bosn­ian town used social soft­ware to recon­nect and rebuild the town.

Julian Bleeck­er — Cool stuff on new ways to inter­act with com­put­ing tech­nol­o­gy beyond the util­i­tar­i­an and effi­cient, into the realm of play.

Dave Win­er — An inter­est­ing char­ac­ter hav­ing a nice con­ver­sa­tion with Thomas. I enjoyed his off­beat remarks and dry wit.

Guy Dick­in­son — Anoth­er round of micro­p­re­sen­ta­tions, this time with me par­tic­i­pat­ing. I stum­bled sev­er­al times. Next time I’ll pre­pare a cus­tom talk for this. The oth­er pre­sen­ters were awe­some.

Ras­mus Fleis­ch­er and Mag­nus Eriks­son — Two cool young anar­chists with inter­est­ing ideas about file shar­ing and the future of music. Too bad large parts of their pre­sen­ta­tion were read from a sheet.

Leisa Reichelt — A care­ful­ly put togeth­er overview of ambi­ent inti­ma­cy, what it is and what it’s for. Next step: com­ing up with design guide­lines for these types of ‘tools’.

Matt Webb — Deliv­ered on the expec­ta­tions raised by his per­for­mances pre­vi­ous years. Inter­est­ing to see him move into expe­ri­ence design ter­ri­to­ry and hear his take on it. Very much applic­a­ble to my dai­ly work in design­ing web ser­vices.

Din­ner and the after-par­ty were great (although it seemed that the reser­va­tions scheme had gone awry, they had no place for us at our cho­sen restau­rant). I guess drink­ing and talk­ing into the night at Vega with a lot of con­fused locals around was a fit­ting way to end anoth­er great Reboot.

Reboot 9.0 day 1

So here’s a short wrap up of the first day. I must say I’m not dis­ap­point­ed so far. The over­all lev­el of the talks is quite high again. Here’s what I attend­ed:

Open­ing keynote — Nice and conceptual/theoretical. Not sure I agree with all the claims made but it was a good way to kick off the day on a gee whizz way.

Jere­my Kei­th — Good talk, nice slides, didn’t real­ly deliv­er on the promise of his pro­pos­al though. I would’ve real­ly liked to see him go into the whole idea of life streams fur­ther. The hack day chal­lenge sound­ed cool though.

Stephanie Booth — Very top­i­cal for me, being a bilin­gual blog­ger and design­er often con­front­ed with localisation/multilingual issues.

My own talk — Went rea­son­ably well. I guess half of the room enjoyed and the oth­er half won­dered what the f*** I was talk­ing about. Oh well, I had fun.

Ross May­field — Could have been much bet­ter if it hadn’t been for tech­ni­cal screw-ups and per­haps some tighter pac­ing by Ross. Still the work he’s doing with social soft­ware is great.

Matt Jones — Very pret­ty pre­sen­ta­tion, nice top­ic and Dopplr looks cool. I’m not a fre­quent fly­er but I can see the val­ue in it. Still not quite sure it will improve the con­se­quences of air-trav­el though.

Nico­las Nova — Came across as the high con­cept, the­o­ret­i­cal twin to my talk. Lots of cool per­va­sive game exam­ples. Nico­las always bog­gles my mind.

Jyri Engeström — Cool to see how he’s devel­oped his talks through­out the past Reboots. I guess he deliv­ered on his promise and stayed on the right side of the ‘I’m push­ing my prod­uct’ line.

The evening pro­gram — No micro-pre­sen­ta­tions (which to be hon­est was fine by me, being quite exhaust­ed). Good food, nice con­ver­sa­tions and plen­ty of weird gen­er­a­tive art, live cin­e­ma etc. All good.

On to day 2!