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Using GDC Talks to Craft a Grand Celebration

Heidi McDonald, the bride at GDC 2014's 1st-ever GDC Wedding, explains how the couple used techniques they learned from GDC talks and designers they respect, to craft their game-themed wedding celebration.

Heidi McDonald, Blogger

March 27, 2014

8 Min Read

When UBM gave Alex McPhearson and I permission to marry at the 2014 GDC, we realized that our wedding would be receiving attention. It became important to carry things off in spectacular fashion; as game developers marrying in front of other game developers at a gaming conference, we felt a certain freedom to make it memorable, but also felt some pressure to show off our design chops. We used design concepts we learned from GDC talks, and concepts from designers we respect, to deliver what we hope was an experience as wonderful for others as it was for us.

Initially, someone said to us, "This sounds like it could be a real circus, and just theater for the guests." That was the greatest gift we could have been given at the start of our process, because it led to an epiphany: ALL weddings are, essentially, theater. Weddings all have characters with parts to play, costumes, props, scenery, lines that must be recited. Once we began to think of the wedding as theater, it led to an important decision: making the event guest-focused rather than us-focused. At Schell Games, we aspire not to create games, but to create experiences, and transformative ones. Alex and I know that we love each other, and we know that we are committed to each other; but what we wanted to do was create an amazing experience for the guests, to show them who we are and include them more directly in the event.

As generally happens at Schell Games during pre-production, we drafted transformational goals:

  • Show the guests a new way to think about weddings: hip, fun, not boring.

  • Design an event so that people who didn't know us, but attended, would see who we are through the ceremony and feel that they know us.

  • Evoke laughter and sentiment, creating a mutual "moment" between the people in the room. (In this case, as we were both Conference Associates who knew many from that community would be there, we wanted it to reflect camaraderie and community with that group.)

  • Include guests more than usual weddings would, to help them feel invested in what was happening.

  • Demonstrate inclusiveness as a matter of design.

  • Celebrate games, and the industry that we've built our lives around, in the presence of others to whom games are important (at the grandest game industry conference of them all).

We made a list of all the things people expect to see at a wedding (rings, vows, entrances, readings, etc.) and for each one, made a list of ways we could include game references. Then, we brought in design concepts from designers we respect, and concepts we'd learned from GDC talks we'd attended.

The Seriousness Arc:

Dave Feltham, BioWare's Cinematic Director for Mass Effect, gave a great talk in 2013: "Emotional Journey: BioWare's Methods to Bring Narrative into Levels." During that talk, Mr. Feltham demonstrated an "Intensity Arc" that BioWare developed through playtesting, to ensure that each cinematic evoked the right emotions from players at the right times. We adopted BioWare's "Intensity Arc," but changed it into a "Seriousness Arc." We knew that people would expect serious, traditional elements in a wedding, but we also wanted to have playful and humorous moments. Therefore, we drew a "Seriousness Arc" which began very humorous, built into seriousness at its peak, and went back down into humorous at the end. Had we placed the ceremony elements in their traditional order, the audience would have become emotionally exhausted from the constant shifts between funny and serious. We placed the different happenings and elements at different points on the Arc, according to their relative level of funny or serious. This allowed us to build an experience that included both sets of expected emotions, and in a logical order.

Interesting Choices:

We are great admirers of Sid Meier, who gave a talk in 2012 called "Interesting Decisions." He spoke about how the greatness of a game depends on the choices that can be made along the way. We were therefore very deliberate about including choice -- choices made by the audience, and choices made by members of the wedding party. We decided to have the audience choose a member of the wedding party, in real time. We also decided that both the bride and the groom should face obstacles on their way to the stage, which would involve choices they must make, symbolizing our deep desire to be there and our choice to be together.

Maximum Real-Life Impact:

Dr. Jane McGonigal, whose school of thought is that games can make a better world and better people, gave a GDC talk in 2013 called "There is No Escape: Designing Videogames for Maximum Real-Life Impact." In that talk, she encouraged designers to "GO GET IT," or, to go large and take risks to make games with positive real-life impact. From this, we realized that the only way to plan this event was to go big, or go home...to not restrict ourselves by saying "that shouldn't ever happen at a wedding." We did put some things in there just for the sake of silliness (like, Sonic the Hedgehog being our ring bearer), but there were other major ceremony moments that we put in there because of metaphorical meaning, such as the groom being assassinated and being resurrected to new life. Alex's speech to the boys parodized the Pokemon theme song, but for many guests was the most touching moment of the ceremony. This is because he chose a familiar, relatable way to deliver deep sentiments.


Inclusiveness in games and in life is extremely important to Alex and I. This concept was articulated beautifully in the 2013 "#1ReasonToBe" talk by Brenda Romero, Robin Hunicke, Elizabeth Sampat, Mattie Brice, Leigh Alexander and Kim McAuliffe. We looked for ways we could signal our agreement with these concepts, and evangelize a bit, without impacting the fun nature of the event. To that end, we included a misunderstanding with the Monkey Island Troll, who blocked my way to the stage, where he said he was not a hostile troll, because women DO belong in games. (This had extra meaning because I was the victim last fall of a vicious trolling campaign.) In our ceremony, we had gender-swapping characters (a male White Mage and a female Assassin), helpers of different races and sexual orientations, and when tossing the bouquet, I was sure to announce that instead of just single women, as tradition often dictates, people of all genders who seek happiness with whomever they want were welcome to try. We were also deliberate about having the groom be assassinated rather than the bride (because we didn't want to depict violence against a woman).

MetaGame Design:

Amy Jo Kim gave a talk at GDC 2010 about meta-game design. We tried to build games taking place during our ceremony that already contained game elements. In addition to the ceremony choices in real time, there were a number of contests going on. We had a couple of contests on our website, leading up to the event. On the day of the wedding, people were encouraged to Tweet pictures to #gdcwedding, so that we could award 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes for photos. (Those are still coming in.) Not only did this save us a bundle on a photographer and make sure that certain small moments we wouldn't have captured got snapped, but it allowed people another way to have fun. We included scorecards and pens in our favor bags, so that people could track the video-game references they caught in the ceremony, and people who turned in their scorecards at the end "unlocked the wedding achievement" and received a special sticker. We will be evaluating the scorecards and sending a prize to the person who caught the most references (with a drawing in the event of a tie).

Tim Schaefer: Monkey Island:

Not only did we drop a Monkey Island reference in the ceremony, but, we took a page from Tim Schaefer when thinking about interesting choices. In Monkey Island, you can make a seemingly innocuous choice which later makes all the difference in the world. Therefore, we decided that a choice between members of the wedding party would in the end make a massive difference to how the wedding ended. The audience chose The White Mage, so, at the end of the wedding, Ezio from Assassins' Creed assassinated the groom and the Mage (chosen by the audience) saved the day by resurrecting him. Had the audience chosen Darth Talon, Ezio would have had to battle a Sith Lord with a lightsaber, resulting in the Star Wars character chosen by the audience saving the day. We wanted the guests to feel heroic because their choice had impact.

Jesse Schell and Lenses:

A few things we considered came straight out of Jesse Schell's "The Art of Game Design." Some of the concepts I've learned from Jesse that we worked hard to incorporate were: finding the fun, player (or in this case, guest) agency, and the element of surprise. Depth was another important consideration, and we were able to think about this using the "vertical slice" method; in this case, it was choosing a moment of the ceremony and looking at everything that was happening in that moment, how we wanted people to feel in that moment, and how that moment tied to the prior and following moments.

There were many moving parts, involving many spreadsheets, diagrams, and PowerPoint presentations...and frankly, we're proud that we pulled this together in three months. We could not have done so without an army of volunteers, and some generous companies who chose to involve themselves. While we did ship with a couple of bugs, we're thrilled with how it went. Every time a guest expresses appreciation, or tells us about how they laughed or cried, it's a great compliment to all the work we put in to design this experience. 

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