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Postmortem - Gangs of GDC: Rumble in the Moscone Center

Innovative NY game developer Gamelab (Diner Dash, Arcadia) developed what they call "the world’s first... massively multiplayer mobile phone fighting game or MMMPFG", Gangs Of GDC, for play at the 2007 Game Developers Conference - here's the postmortem.

If you were at this year’s GDC and noticed an occasional yelp emanating from a group of people mashing buttons on their cell-phones, clustered around a large video display, you may have wondered what all the hubbub was about. For the last six years Gamelab (the indie New York studio that we work for) has made a conference-wide game to be played during the GDC. What those people were doing was playing Gangs of GDC – this year’s installation of the Gamelab GDC game.

What the hell is Gangs of GDC?

Gangs of GDC was the world’s first (as far as we know) massively multiplayer mobile phone fighting game or MMMPFG. While the genre-name may be complicated, the game itself was actually pretty simple and straightforward. The theme was that rival gangs such as the Match Three Boyz and the MMOFOs are vying for control of the GDC by fighting over three neighborhoods scattered throughout the conference center. Each neighborhood consisted of a large flat-screen display set up in a high traffic area of the conference showing a grid of nine blocks.

Players would dial up a number displayed on the screen and be immediately placed on one of the blocks where they would either fight any rivals that were on the block or else flip the block over to their gang’s control. When fights occurred players resolved them through a simple rock-paper-scissors game where they pressed 1, 2 or 3 on their cell-phones to perform a light jab, a strong upper-cut or a devastating roundhouse respectively. Every five minutes each neighborhood would be scored and the gang that controlled the most blocks in a neighborhood would gain points for each block they controlled.


Gamelab's Bite Me, played at the 2001 GDC

Why would anyone make a MMMPFG?

At this point you may be asking yourself, why would someone make an MMMPFG? As mentioned above, for the last six years Gamelab has produced a large real-world game to be played at the GDC. In years past our games have ranged from social experiments like Bite Me to massively multiplayer board games like Leviathan. The goal of these games has always been for us to play around with different forms of gameplay, and to try to provide our fellow developers with a chance to interact with each other while diverting themselves from the whirlwind of activity that is the GDC.

Last year our GDC game was Pantheon: a game where players were divided into warring pantheons of gods. While we were happy with Pantheon and received positive feedback from players (especially about the virgin sacrifice component) we also felt that the game was a bit too complex and required a lot from players both in terms of organization and in sheer number of tokens for each player to manage. To address this we wanted make something a little bit lighter and we also wanted to experiment with using technology to help take some of the burden of managing the state of the game off of players.


Design Approach

The GDC game always presents us with a bevy of interesting design challenges. We have to think of a game with broad and immediate appeal that busy people can play in stolen moments without having to memorize a lot of rules. The game must capture their interest and imagination quickly. Both of us also have a lot of experience with big games so we were aware of the pitfalls often associated with these types of games. Keeping track of the state of the game and communicating it to players is typically very difficult in big games and as a result designers too often end up turning players into cogs with little sense of individual agency, which obviously we wanted to avoid.

With these issues in mind we came up with the following set of design goals to help guide us through the design of the game:

Accessible: The game needed to be extremely easy to understand, pick up and play. Our general guideline was that players should be able to understand the basic rules and make a meaningful move in the game in less than two minutes.

Individual goals: It’s easy for individual players to get lost in these games. Also in a conference setting it’s often difficult to have a strong sense of team identity since most of your teammates are total strangers. To address this we made it a goal that players be able to have some form of individual advancement that was related but not identical to their team’s advancement.

Group goals: One of the chief pleasures of these large real-world games is that you get to play them with and in the presence of other real-live human beings and we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose that by isolating players. While we wanted to make sure that players could have individual goals they should also have an incentive to group up and do things as a team.

Spectacular: In order for the game to attract players in the buzzing confusion of the conference it needed an element of spectacle. As a side benefit we also hoped that adding some spectacle would help break down social barriers and make players more likely to approach one another.

A short period of brainstorming and a particularly fruitful round of beers later, we came up with the four basic features that we felt met our goals:

Cell-phone: Since we wanted to use technology in the game to help keep track of the game-state the obvious candidate for this was cell-phones. Cell-phones are ubiquitous, easy to use and (except for a few cave-dwellers like Mattia) universally adopted. For all their advantages cell-phones also have the drawback of coming in an enormous variety of models with few shared standards that you can easily develop for. In order to avoid all those compatibility and platform headaches we decided that the game should use the one universal feature that absolutely all cell-phones must have: touch-tones. With touch-tones we were guaranteed that anyone with a cell-phone would be able to play and that we were using the clearest, best-supported interface on any phone.

Fighting Mechanic: Deep down just about everyone likes to kick butt. Fighting is clear, intuitive and since we had settled on a gang theme a while back it worked well with the content. However, fighting games are also notoriously difficult and rely on elaborate control schemes, which we definitely didn’t want.

Our solution was to strip the fighting game down to its absolute barest bones. We removed position, blocking, throwing, combos, etc. until we were left with just the essence of most fighting games: rock-paper-scissors. Rock-paper-scissors has the advantage of being simple, fast and almost universally known so we could meet our goal of having players learn the rules quickly and jump right into a short fight.

Players gather around a neighborhood and vie for control of the different blocks

Large Displays: Some of the original ideas for the game involved players finding members of opposing teams via name tags and challenging them to a fight that would play out entirely on their cell-phones. While this had the advantage that the game could be played anywhere we felt that it might not provide the game with enough of a visible presence and that the potential social awkwardness of challenging random strangers could be barrier to people playing.

To resolve these issues we decided to have the game played on large widescreen displays that could act as a kind of attract loop for passers-by and help bring players together without them feeling self-conscious. A side perk of this was that players could scale their social interaction to what they felt comfortable with. You could choose to talk smack to the opponent next to you or quietly pound away at the roundhouse button – it was entirely up to you.

Ranks: To provide players with a sense of individual achievement we had players gain ranks in their gang based on how many fights they had won. The fighting mechanic was fast and extremely simple so pretty much any player would win a decent percentage of the fights they entered into guaranteeing advancement.


Implementation

Technology

Our incredibly dedicated developer, Bob Wylie, immediately set to work installing an Asterisk server and programming the game logic. Asterisk is an open-source PBX. The software is normally used to set up office voicemail systems or create phone trees. But with a lot of work and some incredibly rapid development it turns out you can use Asterisk to control a game as well.

Ranjit Bhatnagar developed the front-end client to display the neighborhoods on the flat screens. For this he used the Java-based Processing framework. Ranjit’s front-end application displayed the game state to the players so they didn’t need any fancy application on the phone. Instead everyone playing the game could see all of the other player’s moves played out in real-time on one big screen.

Development of the game was tricky. It required cobbling together a number of different technologies and protocols, from Asterisk to handle the phone call, to a Java backend to run the game logic, to a MySQL database for storing player data. Then this part of the application had to communicate with the front-end client on three different laptops through a Jabber conduit. All of this had to be made to run in an environment at the Moscone center which we could not predict, from cellphone coverage to firewall issues.

Art

To bring the game to life and make it immediately attractive we needed some great art. We turned to Jacqueline Yue and Kyron Ramsey to make the game look and feel cool. Jac designed an incredible set of game materials, from postcards to posters for each game, as well as the coolest temporary tattoo you’ve ever seen. Kyron made the onscreen effects and characters, using an 8-bit aesthetic that really brought the game to life. Using bright colors and iconic game references Jac and Kyron brought the game to life and gave it a wonderful “candy-coated” feel that drew in passer-bys.

Players show off their love for Gangs of GDC

How did the game go?

Given all of the possible technical problems, the game went extremely well and people really seemed to enjoy it. Gangs of GDC ran for two days around the GDC during which time we had over 300 players making several thousand phone calls.

There would often be small crowds gathered around the screens in the highly trafficked main hall. Each fight was extremely fast, taking no more than 25 seconds. Players would jump in and play a round or two on their way to and from sessions. Our system of individual ranks – with players progressing from Hood to the super-secret top rank Cyrus (think The Warriors) – combined well with the quick game play and made the experience extremely addictive to a number of players. In fact players got so into the game that they blew through our individual rankings much faster than we anticipated.

The game really seemed to work as a wonderful little gumdrop of fun at the GDC, attracting a wide audience that included everyone from executives to game designers to CAs. Even passer-bys enjoyed watching the game and trying figure out who was winning and losing based on people’s expressions.

However, we were a little disappointed that we did not see much grouping and concerted team play. It seems that most players were more interested in their individual ranks. We believe we could address this issue and inspire team interaction by providing more team information and score on each display. In addition, creating a character class system of overlapping dependencies could force grouping and team play.

Conclusions

Big games are always risky. Predicting how one player will behave is hard enough. Predicting how hundreds of them in combination will behave is even harder. But we learned a lot from Gangs of GDC, both about mobile technologies and player motivations. Using the phone as a wireless controller opens up a really interesting space to explore. In fact, the game and feedback we got from our players has already inspired some exciting ideas for next year.

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