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Postcard from GDC 2004: The Experimental Gameplay Workshop

The Experimental Gameplay Workshop explored this week the fringes of game development. Demonstrations of various experimental game techniques ranged from the guerilla tactics of the Indie Game Jam to the innovative thinking behind publicly available titles, and encouraged the audience to think about new ways in which gameplay can be designed.

Brad Kane, Blogger

March 26, 2004

9 Min Read

The Experimental Gameplay Workshop, one of GDC's most popular events, explored this week the fringes of game development. Demonstrations of various experimental game techniques ranged from the guerilla tactics of the Indie Game Jam to the innovative thinking behind publicly available titles encouraged the audience to think about new ways in which gameplay experiences can be designed.

The Indie Game Jam

The third annual Indie Game Jam, introduced by game designer Chris Hecker, kicked the workshop off on a high note. Each year at the Jam, developers make as many innovative games as possible during a four day period using a custom game engine made specifically for the event. The engine is always built around a single technology focus, and this year's focus was gameplay physics. The Game Jam challenge: to create 2D games in which physics drives gameplay.

Here is some of what the team of pro and indie game developers came up with.

  • Wasps. This game takes place inside a skull-shaped arena, and features two wasps trying to scoop up a sea of small objects that behave like a fluid. The goal is to deposit as many of them as possible into the "eyes" of the skull.

  • Spaceships. In this side-scrolling shooter, a player's spaceship ejects "mass" to move forward, while struggling against the backward pull of an enormous black hole. Enemies and obstacles respond physically to a variety of weapons -- meaning that a well-placed ammo burst can push a pesky asteroid right of the way.

This Boot Looterlevel collapsed during the demo.

  • Boot Looter. This game seems at first like a platform jumper, akin to Lode Runner -- but these platforms and ladders shift and move under the weight of the character. The goal is to reach the top of the screen before the entire level collapses beneath you.

  • Spider. A two-player game in which players control spiders moving around a web. The web itself is subject to physical change: players can cut the web, spin new webs, and alter the shape of the web via their spider's motion.

  • Checker's Hopper. The player controls a miniature pogo stick, capable of bouncing up and down while leaning from side to side, to create angled trajectories. Any block with which the hopper comes into contact is given torque and momentum, meaing the entire environment is an interactive physics simulation.

  • Stunt Hamsters. In this game, the player controls a hamster cannon, and must use the explosive properties of the hamsters to achieve a goal. In the demo, a player fired several dozen squeaking hamsters into a depression next to a rock, then shot another hamster through a ring of fire so as to ignite the hamsters and blast the rock out of the way of the goal.

  • Pig Plow. A physics-based pig plowing game. In addition to manipulating a plow to scoop pigs into a net, a player can change the abilities of his or her plow by collecting physics-based power-ups.

  • Spirograph. An art toy more than a game, in which a player manipulates a boomerang to create aesthetically pleasing on-screen designs.

Players must balance BKS Iyengar in Yoga.

  • Yoga. The goal here is to keep a paper cut-out of Yoga master BKS Iyengar balanced in his various yoga poses.

  • Dancing Shrimp. In this game, the environment responds to the game's music, and the player movies a dynamically-controlled shrimp within that environment. There's no object per se, but it's interesting to see what happens when the beat stops and gravity becomes zero.

  • Orange Planter. Possibly the most aesthetically interesting of this year's Jam games, this game features tiny characters who live in a physically simulated tree. The object is to use the characters' motion to sway the tree from side to side, and then when the tree is close enough to the ground, to pick up oranges and feed them into the receptors at the top of the tree. A successfully planted orange yields a beautiful burst of color and sound.

The audience was visibly impressed with the level of innovation that the Indie Game Jam Developers achieved within only four days, and went away with an entirely new perspective on physics-driven gaming.

Other Experimental Games

Much of the Experimental Gameplay Workshop consisted of indepent developers demonstrating their own gameplay innovations. Among the participants:

Pirates join up to form puzzle-solving crews in Puzzle Pirates.

Puzzle Pirates. In this Massively Multiplayer Online Game, players control pirates who live and interact in a fully-developed island world. As in other MMOG's, players communicate with each other and participate in a user-driven economy, but Puzzle Pirates also uses simple puzzle games (in the vein of Tetris or Bejewled) to drive interaction. Fighting a duel or engaging in ship-to-ship combat requires users to play mini-games such as "Swordfight," or "Sailing."

Puzzle Pirates is intentionally devoid of numbers or statistics, instead favoring simple player rankings. The goal, said the developer, was to create a world that was fun and involving, but easy to approach and remain immersed in.

Haptic Battle Pong. This game, presented by two Stanford grad students, employs haptic interface devices to let either one or two players move their arms in 3D space and control a game of virtual ping pong. The game is played with a pair of $15,000 haptic controllers that allow six full degrees of motion.

The goal of the experiment, said the developers, was to create a game in which force feedback was integrated with gameplay physics, rather than simply serving as a software-driven response. But developing for haptics turned out to be difficult, said the developers, due to the intense processer demands of haptic input and the difficulty of coordinating haptic feedback over a network.

Polygonal Polly. In this game, designed specifically to teach pre-teen girls how to program, players connect to an online space in which they can program the actions of polygonal shapes, or "Pollies," that exhibit a surprising range of action and emotion. Once girls have programmed their Pollies to walk, run, hop, or dance, they then connect with other girls and take their Pollies to the playground. Pollie groups are capable of playing tag, jumping rope, or doing anything the girls come up with.

The purpose of the game, said the developers, is to leverage young girls' procilivity for social interaction as a means of helping them learn to program. The developers also see this project as a starting point for a much larger endeavor -- tapping the linguistic abilities of young children to discover a "natural" programming language.

An ultra-absorbant sphere sucks countries right off the face of the Earth in Katamari Damaci.

Katamari Damaci. This amusing Japanese game features a ball rolling around an environment that absorbs every object it encounters in its path. Each object sticks to the surface of the ball as if with glue, and as each new object is added, the rolling dynamic of the ball changes to reflects the ball's new shape.

At first, the ball absorbs small objects: lollipops, horseshoes, trash cans, small animals... but as the ball gets larger, the scale increases, allowing a player to absorb fence poles, light posts, road signs, and palm trees. As the ball heads out into the larger world, it can absorb pedestrians, cars, skyscrapers, and eventually, the very countries and continents themselves.

A Successful Experiment

In addition to the above, presenters showed other games that innovated and explored at the boundaries of game development.

There were also several presentation focusing on unique gameplay features in recent industry titles. Among the most interesting was a discussion of the use of time in games, and the ways in which titles such as Max Payne, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Viewtiful Joe have used the concept of time to manipulate the gameplay experience.

All around, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop was a success, leaving audience members with plenty to think about in terms of new directions in game development. The event will surely continue to evolve along interesting lines in the years to come.

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About the Author(s)

Brad Kane


Brad Kane is a freelance writer focusing on the film and videogame industries. He has worked on several of the top-grossing animated movies of all time, and on a number of upcoming film and interactive projects. He can be reached at [email protected].

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