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Danielle Riendeau, Editor-in-Chief

April 4, 2023

10 Min Read
case of the golden idol wanted poster in darkened bar

Of all of our subject matter round-ups from GDC 2023, this is the beefiest edition. We simply saw the most design talks (and facilitated the most design-centered interviews) at the show this year, by a wide margin, ranging from chats with smaller developers making fascinating creations like IGF best student game winner Slider all the way to an in-depth look at how one of Horizon Forbidden West's most iconic cauldrons was designed from the ground up. While there's no way we could cover all of the great design talks at the show this year (yes, we'll be looking on vault), here are a few of our favorites.

Five tabletop RPG mechanics that video games should definitely steal

Obsidian senior area designer Evan Hill took to the stage at GDC 2023 to plot a heist.

Pulled from Mouseguard and Burning Wheel, beliefs and instincts are traits that influence how characters interact with, and frame, the world around them. For instance, if players take on the role of a peasant farmer in Mouseguard, they might have to cope with the belief that they're the "true king of this land." In Burning Wheel, meanwhile, an Orc might have beliefs such as "I must interrogate an elf, a dwarf, and a human to discover if they have minds like my own."

The Case of the Golden Idol used frequent testing to sharpen its mystery-solving

The Case of the Golden Idol trusts the player to solve a complex forty-year old mystery, asking them to piece together the culprits, tools, and locations involved.

We felt that there were still unanswered problems in the point-and-click detective genre that had yet to be solved in a satisfying way. We wondered why there were so few successors to the Return of Obra Dinn, a boundary-pushing title that laid the foundations of a great framework on how to feel like a detective.

We identified three main issues; gameplay flow, disjointed narrative, and the communication of insights when the player is solving mysteries. After this, we prototyped a few versions of our own on how to deliver that experience until one of them stuck. This would become The Case of the Golden Idol.

funny kitty stick controller and cat in game

Funny Kitty Stick simulates cat play time with electromagnetic controllers

Funny Kitty Stick lets players interact with a digital cat, guiding it to endless mischief using a tracking stick and feeling its tugs through electromagnets.

Funny Kitty Stick aims to emulate the feeling of playing with a lovable kitten through spatial tracking and haptic feedback. The player can move around with our cat stick controller, properly tracking its current translational position and rotational orientation. When the in-game kitty grabs or paws at the dangling toy on the end of the stick, we trigger an electromagnet that latches onto the real-world toy, providing realistic and surprising haptic feedback. The combination of 3D tracking and haptic feedback dissolves the barrier between the player and the screen, allowing for a stronger connection between the player and their adorable kitty.

Lessons from making Horizon Forbidden West's Tallneck Cauldron

Learn what went into making Horizon Forbidden West's breathtaking Cauldron IOTA.

While Micka's first pitches for Cauldron IOTA were accepted by his superiors, he ran into trouble as he iterated on stages. First, designing a Tallneck-centered Cauldron came with massive technical challenges. Tallnecks don't enter combat, meaning that many technical solutions for breaking them, assembling them, or having them move on a vertical axis didn't exist.

This—and the general trials of game development—meant that the Cauldron was at risk of being cut, especially since internal playtesters were having trouble navigating the level. Fortunately for Micka, a number of developments helped him clear the obstacles.

neon white purple level with dominion card in foreground

Neon White and designing for player creativity

Neon White is a parkour-based shootout through heaven, one where you sacrifice guns for powerful movement abilities.

Once you're familiar with a level, you can engage with the core fun of the game: optimizing. We hand-designed shortcuts for each level for players to discover, but we also left plenty of room for players to improvise and trusted that the game's design would allow for a satisfying amount of freedom.

Players can get tunnel vision while optimizing, so we introduced collectible gifts which appear only after you've completed a level. Gifts provide a break from the clock and an opportunity to see the level from a fresh perspective, typically requiring an understanding of all the card resources available in the level. The idea was to encourage players to take it easy and get to know the level more deeply before diving head first into speedrunning it.

Key takeaways from the quest design of Cyberpunk 2077 and The Witcher 3

CD Projekt RED quest director Paweł Sasko highlighted the most important lessons learned from developing these two prolific RPGs at GDC 2023.

Beware of overdesign. "A game is not a life simulation, it is entertainment," Sasko says. Details are only amazing when they matter and have meaning behind them. Don’t add intricate things that don’t make sense and blow up the budget.

kirby slide showing kirby as hero

Kirby at 30: Looking at a game's anniversary through the lens of new games

Series directors deconstruct big Kirby changes in a 3D adventure and a 2D remake.

One idea that stood out during the prototyping phase was an extreme extension of the squishy, malleable animations that Kirby had showcased as far back as the N64 era. "We reconsidered Kirby's characteristics," Kumazaki said. "Kirby is a strange creature: soft like a rubber ball, can take on a variety of shapes, and is totally fine even if stretched or pulled."

Playing with pieces of the world in randomerz's Slider

Slider takes players to a world within a 8-piece slide puzzle. By reorienting the pieces of the world, players will help people reconnect, open new paths forward, and figure out where your cat went.

We decided on 8-puzzles during the game jam because it felt like it would provide a nice scope. It was a manageable size for us to create, as well as a reasonable length for players so they could engage themselves and enjoy the experience. Filling in a 3x3 grid also worked super well, as players could easily attach themselves to the core objective of completing the map. It even has the added benefit of naturally getting harder as you collect more tiles, since the movement is move restricted.

I also find that the 8-puzzle provides a nice balance between restrictions and freedom. Players can find connections between tiles and manipulate the world as needed, but as designers, we are still able to create interesting conundrums in the game.

Sam Barlow breaks down the 'pillars of interactivity' behind Immortality

Speaking at GDC 2023, Immortality co-creator Sam Barlow breaks down his storytelling pillars and reveals the acclaimed project owes its success, in part, to the existence of Pokemon Snap.

'Expression,' he says, is rooted in creating mechanics that give players a richness and fluidity to express themselves in a possibility space, suggesting developers will know they've succeeded when players start interpreting those mechanics in dramatically different ways.

Then there's 'exploration,' which according to Barlow is a "fundamental feature" in a lot of video games, because as a "hunter gatherer species" we're all driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery. "What I've been trying to do it take a lot of those verbs around exploration and apply them directly to the story itself. That's been a fascinating journey," he adds.

How Citizen Sleeper was inspired by tabletop RPGs and gig work

Citizen Sleeper sees players trying to survive the complex needs of their mechanical body as a worker on a run-down space station.

Citizen Sleeper was my experiment in making a different kind of RPG. However, Citizen Sleeper also very distinctly emerges from my own experiences, and in particular my time working zero-hour contracts and gig work, my struggles with mental health and my journey as a non-binary person. After the success of In Other Waters I knew I had been given a "golden ticket"—the chance to make any game I wanted. Because of this, I wanted to make something personal—something that I felt connected to the experiences of my generation and the bigger themes of what it feels like to be a person now.

Photography as narrative design in Mexico, 1921: A deep slumber

Macula Interactive breaks down the photography mechanic that will allow players to explore post-revolutionary Mexico as photojournalist Juan Aguirre.

Vera, however, explained that creating a photography mechanic that felt historically accurate, compelling, and distinct to others that have come before was a fairly hefty undertaking. "We wanted to replicate how hard it was to take pictures in that time," she said, "because we're so used to just picking up a phone and snapping away. So, the mechanic of the camera was fundamental to the experience because you take pictures as part of your journalism journey, discovering narrative beats and collecting evidence, but it's also a tool for the player to enjoy the scenery."

How Dome Keeper focuses on systems that feed into one another

Dome Keeper asks players to split their time between mining for ore and defending their fragile planetary base from creatures that don't want them there.

To me, it isn't even about the appeal of the phases by themselves. It was always about the interplay between the two phases—the battle giving a reason to go mining, but also being an immediate "show floor" for the fruits of your mining labor in addition to the mining upgrades you can get. What I also found crucial was the emotional/pacing balance you can get with this. You have the tense battle where you are fighting for survival. That is offset with the strangely calm mining phase: which is still under a time constraint which means you have to keep busy. This creates a core loop that works well for many people, often getting into a good flow of play. The appeal for me is always in interconnected systems motivating and influencing each other, building complexities in play but not in mechanics.

sylvie lime screenshot and title featuring character and lime

Designing world-spanning & momentum-based platforming in Sylvie Lime

Sylvie Lime is a platformer that asks you to play around with momentum, movement, and some wild abilities to get across its deadly hazards. And sometimes you're a lime.

I can't remember when or why I started thinking about this, but the basic idea is that, in a game where you have both horizontal acceleration and variable-height jumping, your character can move at different "angles" by coordinating your jump arc and horizontal movement appropriately. Recreating different angles is a skill you can practice. I vaguely remember having an idea for a game where this "movement angle" is used to fire projectiles in different directions, but I don't think I ever made it... Maybe there was a game by someone else I played that made me think about "movement angles" in this way, but I can't remember.

Anyways, the main idea of the lime is that you can use this angle to launch yourself. One concern was that if the player can make very small and precise adjustments to their movement, then there are too many different possible angles, and it becomes difficult to recreate specific angles that might be needed for a cool trick. That's why the game runs at 24 FPS: to reduce the amount of precision available.

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About the Author(s)

Danielle Riendeau

Editor-in-Chief, GameDeveloper.com

Danielle is the editor-in-chief of Game Developer, with previous editorial posts at Fanbyte, VICE, and Polygon. She’s also a lecturer in game design at the Berklee College of Music, and a hobbyist game developer in her spare time.

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