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GDC Day Four

Bioware, Blizzard, and NCsoft... oh my!
Due to a grueling back-to-back travel schedule, ineptitude and indifference at numerous Texas airports (can I get a witness?), and normally scheduled crunch time, my planned daily coverage of GDC has devolved into a retrospective. With some small shame, yet hope that someone out there may still care, here is what I recall (and took notes on) from day 4:

After the excitement of Paul Barnett's talk Wednesday, Thursday seemed pretty tame. I'd say the highlight was getting to thank Paul personally after a chance meeting (i.e. benevolent stalking.) That being said, there were some intellectually stimulating presentations and one that quite blew me away in its scope of imagination...

Bioware's Top Things Great Designers Exhibit
Here they are in tantalizing reverse order:

10 - Passion for games
9   - Breadth and Depth of Knowledge
8   - Problem Solving and Analytical Skills
7   - Flexibility
6   - Keep it Simple, Son
5   - Player Empathy
4   - Continuous Improvement
3   - Teamwork, Being a Team Player
2   - Positive Mental Attitude
1   - Clear Communications

One audience questioner suggested that the same list could apply to any discipline in the game industry as qualities needed for success. It's true, and we can all probably improve in one area or more. Bioware's Gordon Walton further added that being a badass in your discipline is the baseline, your ticket into the big leagues, so don't think you can get by with just these ten traits and no real skills!

Breadth and Depth of Knowledge, number nine, is hard to argue with. The follow up point is that most innovation is really a synthesis of existing knowledge. The point being, don't limit yourself to games, but feel free to be interested in everything! I have found this to be true, and never feel like I've wasted time pursuing outside interests. This was a point also made forcefully by Nintendo's Iwata in his keynote presentation in describing Miyamoto's Way. Yet another presentation, a roundtable, produced this quote from Bing Gordon on the same topic: "The best designers have the best bookshelves."

Number 10 is Passion for Games, the least important element, yet should be a baseline for aspiring designers. While this feels intuitively true, I do know at least one superb game designer who doesn't really love games all that much, but surely this is the exception.

A final thought from Gordon Walton on this topic of what attributes make a great designer, has no context in my memory. I don't know if it related to a particular number in his top ten list or what, but it was impactful and I wrote it down. It's this: a great designer has "...clarity on how to get to the fun." There you have it! Great session, thank you Gordon.

The Cruise Director of Azeroth
World of Warcraft's quest system designer, Jeffrey Kaplan, was quite forthright and informative in presenting the design, motivations, iterations and tribulations of developing the quest system of the worlds most dominant MMO. It was interesting to see their original mindset, as an underdog to the 800 pound gorilla that was Everquest at the time, and how that shaped their approach. For instance, they went from simply targeting a certain number of quests for WoW because they thought they should have them (600, compared to 1200 for EQ at the time), to identifying questing as the primary vehicle for character progression all the way through to the end game. Great example of iteration and organic design.

The real life social metagame playing out around the talk itself was just as fascinating. Of course there was a tremendous line outside, full of gawkers, designers, and fanboys. Then there were the folks walking up to ask, "What's everyone waiting to see? Oh... WoW."

C'mon, love it or hate it, as a designer you should probably pay attention to the most ridiculously polished smash hit of the decade. I do understand the fatigue with the property, and can sympathize. But, hatin' won't move the medium forward, it's well worth the effort to grok their successful paradigm so we can improve upon it. Let's not be too cool for school, it only reinforces bad stereotypes about game design auteurs and self-absorbed industry rockstars/divas.

Post Mortem: Mission Architect for City of Heroes
This was the amazing session I mentioned earlier, focused on introducing a significant user generated content system into a well-established MMO. But, we gotta get past calling these things "post-mortems." I think "post partum" works better, because once that baby gets grunted out, you still gotta nurture it!

Whoever greenlighted this at NCsoft has the stones of Sisyphus, in that they surely must be large and presumably difficult to roll uphill. It's bold, game changing, and innovative, as you can read at length in Gamasutra's coverage HERE. I was particularly impressed with how they managed to constrain the system to allow maximum freedom of expression, much in the way that sonnets, 6 word autobiographies, and twitter do. It appears to be immaculately socially engineered as well, though we'll see how that interpersonal footbridge holds up under traffic and over time.

I don't have any disclaimers to make about this, I've never played CoH and am not a fanboy; neither do I have anything against it. I will admit to admiring NCsoft's general courage and innovation, but this product is primarily to the credit of presenter and quest system designer Joe Morrissey. Grats Joe! You've convinced me to try out your super cool Mission Architect, and recommend it to anyone who's reading this. Dear readers, try it!

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