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GDC 2012: Humor, meaning, cooperation and ambition: the microtalks

The much-anticipated and packed GDC microtalks, hosted by Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand, converged speakers from varied development backgrounds for a series of rapid-fire presentations.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

March 8, 2012

10 Min Read

The much-anticipated and packed GDC microtalks, hosted by Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand, converged speakers from varied development backgrounds, each of whom was tasked with presenting an idea – or saying something that they might not get to say otherwise at the conference --within a 5 minute and 20 second constraint. David Sirlin: Quick Choices Are Self-Expression The theme of this year’s microtalks was “playing for time”. Designer, author and notable re-balancer of Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD remix David Sirlin kicked off the event by noting that players can process and react to stimuli in under a second. In fighting games – that “take place on the scale of, like, a 60th of a second” – Sirlin shared a quote from Capcom’s Seth Killian: “I can learn more about someone from watching 10 seconds of them playing Street Fighter than 10 hours of them watching an RPG.” Players of fighting games make rapid decisions as they play that are forms of self-expression. “A game that’s about your unconscious thought versus someone else’s unconscious thought has wide appeal, that doesn’t feel like homework… is getting at something that’s deep down inside us, and can still be enormously strategic,” Sirlin concluded. Erin Robinson: Simplify For Longevity’s Sake Erin Robinson was a psychology student before beginning her young career in indie game design. “We tend to think… that we are the present and everything else in the past,” she begins. “So how can we create anything that lasts at all?” She suggests we can address the concept by looking at the media that have endured, even in the era of pre-literacy, as in storytelling. “The idea that these cultural histories can survive through hundreds of years of foreign influence or worse is kind of heartening,” she points out. Histories illustrate cultural values and perpetuate them, even if the stories evolve through time as they pass through different communities. Game rules are similarly intangible cultural objects, and the more accessible the game ‘pieces’ are – some can be played with just stones and dirt – the more pervasive this effect is. But what about video games? Well-loved franchises persist and connect us to history, but “I think we generally have a problem with nostalgia… young people aren’t coming to [old games]” necessarily. A game like Mancala that persists culturally is still accessible to players of all ages. Exploring stories like those of parents, of coming of age or love – or as with her current project Gravity Ghost, involving the spirits of animals – can help give a concept longevity. She believes current obsession with old-school game forms and ideas about best practices are limiting to the long-term to the permanence of games. “Embrace simplicity and accessibility,” she advises. Cliff Blezsinski: Key tips for self-starters Self-starting game developers can remember a few simple facts for success – and keeping things as simple as possible, through solutions like working on the PC, using free dev tools (like Epic’s own Unreal Development Kit), and working virtually with colleagues. “Start with the damn game mechanic first… and then customize the fiction around it to support what the game mechanic is,” he asserts. “Look at things that tried and failed; learn from their mistakes.” Sometimes a better version of an existing form can be okay if it learns from the failures of the past iteration. “You may not always have the best idea; your concept artist may have a better idea,” he says. From there, iterate, grow teams carefully, build a good culture around your work, and save your money. “This is a volatile business, and you might not know where you’ll be tomorrow.” “Do it because you love it, but also make sure you get paid,” he says. Alice Taylor: Make physical stuff Figure prints are physical souvenirs of “the places we spend time in,” explains UK Channel 4’s game commissioner Alice Taylor, “and who doesn’t want that?” Players can get toys of their Warcraft character, generate Super Meat Boy toys or explore crafting physical objects of other universes that have simple geometries is a good way to offer players something they can keep and hold. But thanks to the advent of 3D printing, it’s important you don’t need a Zynga-like deal with Hasbro to create objects that have relationships to games. “3D printing is not yet supposed to replace injection molding, but [it] is a thing to play with,” she recommends – especially given how much players love customizing and personalizing. Mary Flanagan: Explore the possibilities of cooperative play “When we do things in synchrony with others… we can actually increase cooperation before a conflict, even if we don’t like each other,” explains Mary Flanagan. Kids have an instinctive urge to cooperate even when they don’t have a goal or a reason. To demonstrate the power of cooperation, she engaged the audience in a physical activity: The familiar game where players face one another, touch palms and try to be the first to slap hands. She emphasized how different the experience of winning is from the experience of cooperation when she modified the game so that players had to turn their hands over together without letting go – and with eyes closed. Cooperation can inspire trust and vulnerability. “That’s something you can take to your design practice,” Flanagan suggests. Brandon Sheffield: Make games for yourself The perception that games are best developed through market research and focus testing is completely incorrect, Brandon Sheffield believes – and in fact, by rejecting these principles players can access entirely new, and often larger audiences and earning potential. For example, look no further than Superbrothers’ Sword and Sworcery’s 300,000-unit success – even though with its unique aesthetic and 99 percent price point for an unfamiliar experience, it seemed to be a “recipe for failure in a world where the birds are angry and the top games are free.” Similarly, the massive success of Minecraft is due to a creator being true to his own interest and making the kind of thing he’d enjoy playing with. When you make games based on your interests and on the things you think are cool, other people will share your enthusiasm – resulting in free marketing. That’s because people want to identify with cool things; people want others to think they’re cool, Sheffield suggests. Not that creators should try to emulate Minecraft or Sworcery -- the point is to “pay attention to the thought process… that created them,” Sheffield advises. Find your niche – something you care about more than anything else – and combine it with a mechanic that you find interesting. The result could be a wildly successful and well-regarded niche game, like Bennett Foddy’s QWOP. Scale small, advises Sheffield, and ditch everything that doesn’t fit your vision. This keeps your product strongly focused and has the added bonus of keeping teams and costs as small as they can be. “When you’re targeting everyone, you’re really targeting no one,” notes Sheffield, quoting Capy’s Nathan Vella. Even if you’re not independent and are at work on a big game, you can broaden your audience and create more enthusiasm by digging deep on a single element under your jurisdiction. Heather Kelley: Think about experience The idea of experience is always part of gameplay, to an extent. But what can we learn by focusing on the idea of experience, which Kokoromi’s Heather Kelley defines as “doing something yourself rather than observing it happen”? The present culture is more interested than ever in playing with ideas of experience. It’s in part because of the economic movement that disfavors physical media sales, forcing content creators to find new ways to engage audiences and get hem to spend money. The popularity of DIY and hacker culture these days suggests an increasing number of people are excited by personalizing their experiences by doing things on their own. Even in contemporary art experience is becoming increasingly important – look how many people waited in line for hours simply to sit at a table across from performance artist Marina Abramovic and look silently into her eyes, during her “The Artist is Present” installation. Experience-focused games aren’t necessarily a single category, but focusing on experience “reclaims” games, in Kelley’s view, and strips away elements like scores and achievements that many have, in her opinion wrongly, insisted are “core” to what games are. Rules do create a guiding framework, of course, but they’re useful for more than just getting the player to the badge at the end of the game. Advises Kelley: “Consider how playing your game creates intrinsically-interesting moment to moment action.” Dan Pinchbeck: Things we need to stop talking about Dear Esther creator Dan Pinchbeck is sick of a few key conversations that the games industry repeats, and passionately argued for the end of what he sees as certain straw-man debates. One is the idea that “games need to evolve… what does that even mean?” Pushing endlessly for “evolution” pegs games as a transient form that are somehow incomplete, when in fact people have been playing games of all kinds since primitive times. He also hates the “games are derivative” conversation, pointing out that massive derivation takes place in all media – just look at how many formulaic romantic comedies have been released over the years – and that the derivation doesn’t in any way demean or degrade other innovations in the medium. Another offender: The assertion that “games need to be smart.” No one works all day and then wants to read quantum physics when it’s time to relax. He hates the idea that games need to get their retail prices down or obsess on mechanical ideas of “value per dollar”, as that’s a corporate-driven agenda. In the days of the arcade, people had no problem pumping endless quarters into arcades if they loved the experience and considered it worthwhile. And he hates the arguments about whether or not something is a “game” – one needs only to look at the fact such debate surrounded his own Dear Esther, which is a popular subject of affection at GDC and a recent award winner. Amy Hennig: It’s okay to just make a fun game Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is a “love letter” to the pulp action genre, and as Hennig points out, it “wears [its] influences on [its] sleeve.” But a less-discussed influencer on the game’s goals is the movie Sullivan’s Travels (character Sully is the film’s namesake). The movie follows a Hollywood director who’s fed up with making fluffy comedies and longs to make a deep, socially relevant film. He tries to flee for the hobo life in the hopes of experiencing true suffering to inspire his work, and in a series of comic misadventures he learns what the homeless life is like. Motivated to donate, he ends up instead getting mugged and ultimately imprisoned; his misguided idealism resulted in the stripping-away of everything he loved. All that remained to the character of Sullivan was the ability to laugh, says Henning. Thus Sullivan learned that was his greatest gift: That he could make others laugh, and thus he regained the dignity of his profession. Though the combination of comedy and drama confused reviewers, the film pulled off something interesting: It was a message film that argued against message films. Meaningful stories can be embedded beneath light comedy and escapist fun, Hennig believes. Amid all the discussion and dogma about what games are supposed to be, she fears “taking ourselves too seriously.” “There’s nothing wrong with escapist fun,” she says. “It’s okay to have that be the goal.” In environments of humor and entertainment, game creators can still tell stories about beauty, despair, loss, grace and more.

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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