Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Hitting the game design wall

GDC for dilettantes


I'm not a a game designer, but every year I eagerly look forward to the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco. I learn more in one hour-long GDC session than in a month of reading theory books or playing games. If you want to understand the inspiration, ingenuity, and complex collaborative process behind the games you enjoy, GDC is the place to be. That's why I'm in San Francisco this week.

The organizers of this year's event have scaled back on keynote addresses from industry luminaries - talks I've found generally disappointing over the years - and focused the conference's lectures and roundtables on the three major thematic threads that typically characterize GDC sessions: 1) How We Did It. 2) Big Ideas. 3) Where Do We Go From Here?

I try to arrange my GDC schedule to include a healthy sampling from each category. If you're a game design dilettante like me - a studious outsider to the game industry, eager to learn about its many facets - GDC is chock-full of sessions to piqué your interest. Here are the ones that caught my eye this year. I can't attend them all, but I intend to give it my best shot.

How We Did It

Journey vs. Monaco: Music is Storytelling
SPEAKER/S: Austin Wintory (independent) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Composer Austin Wintory compares the two radically different scores he completed in 2011: thatgamecompany's Journey and Pocket Watch Games' Monaco. Despite being different games with different goals and very different scores, the underlying philosophy for creating a musically meaningful experience was identical. This talk explores how large scale and small scale structures were made in order to try and create narrative arcs and how reconciling adaptivity with musicality was handled. It will also explore the production process for each score, including a look at unused music and the evolutionary process the scores underwent. The lead designer for each game (Jenova Chen and Andy Schatz) will join Austin for the audience Q&A.

Reimagining a Classic: The Design Challenges of Deus Ex: Human Revolution
SPEAKER/S: Francois Lapikas (Eidos Montreal / Square-Enix) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 134, North Hall

This lecture will offer an intimate look at what it meant to bring back to life a beloved franchise, from a design standpoint. Through examples taken from DX:HR’s production, we’ll discuss the challenges we faced, the decisions we made and why the game ultimately turned out the way it did. Macro decisions as well as low-level mechanics will be discussed.

Batman: Arkham City - Journey from the Asylum to the City
SPEAKER/S: David Hego (Rocksteady Studios) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:05- 4:30 Room 130, North Hall 

This session highlights the journey taken by the Rocksteady art team to create the Arkhamverse, started with Batman: Arkham Asylum and matured in Batman: Arkham City. From the concept stage to the production development, Art Director David Hego presents the key pillars in the visual narration of Batman: Arkham City, from the process of injecting Batman's DNA in every square meter of the game world, to the hyper realist take of the stylised rogue gallery. We will look at the different art influence, how to keep the player excited by the visuals by fighting normalisation and the lessons learned during the development of Batman: Arkham City.

Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way
Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:10 Room 134, North Hall

We use the words "immersive" and "engaging" all the time when we're discussing the things that are most important about great videogame experiences and yet, how well do we really understand the concepts that these words point to? Richard Lemarchand, lead game designer at Naughty Dog, will use this session to try and dispel some of the confusion about how videogames keep us fascinated, by introducing the psychological concept of attention to our ongoing conversation about play and games.

Attention! The process of selectively concentrating on one perception or thought, while ignoring other things has been one of the most widely discussed concepts in the one hundred and fifty year history of modern psychology, but it is rarely, if ever, mentioned on stage at GDC. What is attention? How does it work? What is its relationship with the overlapping phenomena of entrancement, compulsion and depth in games, and how can we use our awareness of our players' attention to make our games better? By using practical examples from his involvement in the playtesting of the Uncharted games, Richard will describe how you can use metrics data and other methods to get a handle on the elusive subjects of your players' attention, without breaking the bank on elaborate equipment.

Creating a Sequel to a Game That Doesn't Need One
SPEAKER/S: Chet Faliszek (Valve) and Erik Wolpaw (Valve) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl 

Erik and Chet will discuss how Valve created Portal 2, the sequel to the beloved game nobody thought needed a sequel. The talk covers the entire process from inception to the completion and reception of the game.

Landing On Mars: Our Rocky Path to Inventing New Gameplay
SPEAKER/S: Randy Smith (Tiger Style) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl 

Tiger Style, the indie studio behind this year's Waking Mars and the 2009 IGF Best Mobile Game, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, is committed to creating innovative gameplay and meaningful artistic content with every project. Despite a strong background in design savvy titles such as Thief, Deus Ex, and Splinter Cell, the team learned that innovation is never easy or predictable. Numerous prototypes, several major revisions and a series of crucial revelations were survived before the concepts "action gardening" and "ecosystem gameplay" evolved from catch phrases into new interactive experiences the team was proud of. Join creative director Randy Smith through a tour of their well-documented experiments, mistakes, theories and victories to get a glimpse into what this award-winning studio has learned about the problem of inventing new gameplay.

Classic Game Postmortem: Fallout
SPEAKER/S: Timothy Cain (Obsidian Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:00-11:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

It's changed developers' hands several times, switched perspectives, and jumped from turn-based to real-time gameplay, but the Fallout series' survival and consistently high quality games are a testament to the original's strengths. The first Fallout offered players a post-apocalyptic open world filled with distinctive characters, moral dilemmas, and quests that could be solved in multiple, oftentimes unconventional ways. Timothy Cain, who was the producer, lead programmer, and one of the primary designers for the beloved game, will deliver a talk on how he helped create a franchise that set a new standard for open-world RPGs and still resonates with players.

Build That Wall: Creating the Audio for Bastion
SPEAKER/S: Darren Korb (Supergiant Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 11:30-12:30 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

You don't need a high-end recording studio and hordes of sound engineers to produce AAA quality audio for your game. How did a one-man audio team create the critically acclaimed music and sound for Supergiant Games' Bastion on a shoestring budget? By recording in his closet...that's how! Supergiant Games' Audio Director and Composer, Darren Korb, will walk you through his development process; from creating Bastion's eclectic "acoustic frontier trip-hop" soundtrack and haunting vocal melodies, to its innovative reactive narration and sound effects. Learn how to create high-production-value audio on an "Indie" budget, all by yourself, through the creative use of simple techniques!

Creating Atmosphere in Games
SPEAKER/S: Greg Kasavin (Supergiant Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 2:30- 3:30 Room 134, North Hall

Atmosphere in games is the hidden layer between the artwork, audio, narrative, and level design, and can elevate the experience above and beyond the moment-to-moment pleasures of the gameplay. What is it exactly, where does it come from, and how can it be implemented and used to good effect? And what do you give up by having it (or not having it)? This talk will answer these questions and more through the story of how our seven-person studio went about creating an atmospheric game on a modest budget in the action RPG, Bastion. In doing so, we will explore a methodical approach to creating atmosphere in games, stemming from a strong sense of tone and theme in a work, the goal of which is to provide a more seamless, meaningful, and internally consistent experience for players.

The Art of Noise: Incorporating Aleatoric Techniques in Your Scores
SPEAKER/S: Garry Schyman (Garry Schyman Productions) and Jason Graves (Jason Graves Music, Inc.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 2:30- 3:30 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Aleatoric writing (sometimes referred to as extended techniques) has been widely used by avant-garde composers over the past half century, but only recently been incorporated in scores for video games. Two composers in particular, Garry Schyman (Bioshock) and Jason Graves (Dead Space), have incorporated these techniques into their work, receiving much attention for their unique and award-winning scores.? This lecture will demystify this style through classical literature, modern film scores and the panelist's own video game scores, illustrating the real-world value of these techniques through written conductor's scores and accompanying audio examples.

Contrastive Juxtaposition: Contrast and Context in BioWare Story and Cinematics
SPEAKER/S: Jonathan Perry (BioWare) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 4:00- 5:00 Room 2016, West Hall, 2nd Fl

Creating emotionally engaging stories and cinematics requires the narrative, visual, audio and gameplay elements to work together to support the game's central themes. Using contrast and context as tools can help teams develop stronger story themes, create content that supports those themes and deliver the story in a meaningful way that doesn't rely on lengthy exposition. This session will examine how BioWare has used contrast and context in Mass Effect and Dragon Age and how these techniques can be implemented across departments to enhance the narrative and cinematic experience.

The Art of Uncharted 3
SPEAKER/S: Robh Ruppel (Naughty Dog) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 12:05-12:30 Room 132, North Hall

What goes into concepting a game at Naughty Dog? Join art director Robh Ruppel as he walks you through the conceptualizing of the latest installment of the Uncharted series. Color scripts, character sketches and environmental designs are all covered with never seen before art and sketches. This is an in depth look into the art behind Uncharted you won't be able to see anywhere else but at GDC.

Big Ideas

Interesting Decisions
SPEAKER/S: Sid Meier (Firaxis Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Long, long ago at a GDC far, far away, I introduced the idea that a useful way of looking at gameplay is as "a series of interesting decisions". This comment has since taken on a life and identity of its own and appears irregularly in theoretical discussions of game play and game design. While I have referred to it on occasion in game design talks, I've never really drilled any deeper into this idea. I propose to examine what types/categories of decisions are inherently interesting. How to we recognize or add these types of decisions, how do we maximize their interest, how does pacing affect decisions. What types of information and feedback are essential to fully immerse the player. Using examples from widely known games we'll examine how interesting decisions can improve your game designs in a way applicable to a wide variety of game types.

The Gamification of Death: How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming
SPEAKER/S: Margaret Robertson (Hide&Seek) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 11:00-12:00 Room 135, North Hall

GDC is the place we come to get excited about the potential of games. But what are the hard limits to how far games can go? In what might be the hardest game design challenge ever, UK studio Hide&Seek was asked to make the game of a documentary about the discovery of a corpse in a busy London block of flats: a woman had lain dead for three years without being found, without ever having been reported missing. She was 37-years-old.

How does someone fall through the cracks, despite having family, friends and neighbors? And how do you make a game about a real woman's death without producing something crass, simplistic or libelous? This is the story of how we tried and failed, and of the fundamental contradiction that we discovered at the heart of gamification. Note: It won't be as grim as it sounds.

The Emotional Puppeteer: Uncovering the Musical Strings that Tie Our Hearts to Games
SPEAKER/S: Marty O'Donnell (Bungie) and Brandi House (Bungie) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 2:00- 3:00 Room 3010, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Music provokes powerful emotions like anticipation, excitement, serenity, terror and hope from the players of our games. That means composers may be the most clever puppeteers in the carnival. Even great composers can benefit from a clearer understanding of how these strings are attached or, in some cases, freakishly broken. In this talk we'll illuminate powerful insights uncovered through user research about how people really feel in response to music in games. We will describe the methods we used and share the data we gathered using a variety of audio and video examples. Finally, you will be able to ask tough questions like "Does music make people feel heroic?" Why yes, it certainly does.

Cinematic Game Design IV: Character & Empathy
SPEAKER/S: Richard Rouse III (Paranoid Productions) and Marty Stoltz (Big Huge Games/38 Studios) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:30- 4:30 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl

More than any other medium, games have the potential to let players "walk a mile" in someone else's life. But for players to be truly immersed and see through someone else's eyes, players must empathize with the player character. Films have a similar challenge and over the last hundred years have developed numerous cinematic techniques that help define characters and make audiences empathize with even the most un-likable personalities.

In the latest installment of the popular Cinematic Game Design GDC lecture series, we focus on the issue of defining character and strengthening audience/player empathy for that character. A series of film clips that demonstrate specific cinematic devices for manipulating audience empathy will be shown, with each technique analyzed and assessed to see how it could be applied to a game. Clips from games that have used variations on these techniques will also be shown and discussed. As with previous installments, the talk is not just about cut-scenes, but how these cinematic techniques can be applied to gameplay itself.

Forgotten Tales Remembered: The Games that Inspired Leading Innovators.
SPEAKER/S: John Romero (Loot Drop)Cliff Bleszinski (Epic Games)Jon-Paul Dyson (The Strong)Sid Meier (Firaxis Games) and Will Wright (StupidFunClub) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 11:30-12:30 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

Every great art needs to learn from its past. Video games are no different. In this session, masters of the craft discuss key games that particularly influenced them and explain what aspects of these games are still worth learning from today. In the process, the speakers will differentiate between those characteristics of games that are time-bound or technology-dependent and those fundamental game-design choices that promote good play in any era. By revisiting classic games—and exploring what made them so good—today's game designers can learn from the past in order to sharpen their skills for the present.

Do (Say) The Right Thing: Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design
SPEAKER/S: Joshua Sawyer (Obsidian Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 2:30- 3:30 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl 

This talk addresses what continues be a major issue for developers: how to structure branching conversations in ways that feature compelling gameplay, accomplish narrative goals, and support player agency. Despite making increasingly successful games, RPG developers have not fundamentally changed their approach to structuring conversations in over a decade. With RPGs becoming more "mainstream" in the eyes of publishers and the public, now is the perfect time to do so. By examining ten years of conversation tree evolution from the original Fallout to New Vegas - and many other RPGs along the way - this retrospective will analyze what has changed for the better, what's taken a turn for the worse, and what designers and writers need to do about it.

GDC Microtalks 2012: One Hour, Ten Voices, Countless Ideas
SPEAKER/S: Cliff Bleszinski (Epic Games)Dan Pinchbeck (thechineseroom)Heather Kelley (.)Mary Flanagan (Tiltfactor, Dartmouth College)Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog)Dave Sirlin (.)Erin Robinson (.)Brandon Sheffield (.)Amy Hennig (Naughty Dog) and Alice Taylor (.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 4:00- 5:00 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

The GDC Microtalks are back with another hour of short talks loaded with big ideas, presented by a host of your favorite game industry speakers! The Microtalk concept is simple: each of the session's ten speakers gets 20 slides, each of which will be displayed for exactly 16 seconds before automatically advancing. That gives each speaker exactly five minutes and 20 seconds to speak about subjects that they might not otherwise get to address on-stage at GDC.

Join Amy Hennig, Alice Taylor, Brandon Sheffield, Cliff Bleszinski, Dan Pinchbeck, David Sirlin, Erin Robinson, Heather Kelley and Mary Flanagan, along with curator and host Richard Lemarchand, Lead Game Designer at Naughty Dog, as the speakers consider this year's theme, "Playing for Time". Don't miss this thought-provoking, creativity-inspiring session that never hesitates to shine a light on the many futures of game design!

Minimal vs Elaborate, Simple vs Complex and the Space Between
SPEAKER/S: Andy Nealen (Rutgers University / Hemisphere Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 4:00- 5:00 Room 3009, West Hall, 3rd Fl

What is complexity and how is it measured? How does one add or remove complexity? How does complexity influence accessibility?

Starting with an analysis of Chess, Go, and Drop7, the "perceived complexity" of a game is introduced. This concept is rooted in a combination of measurable systemic complexity, the variety of player choices, as well as the audiovisual feedback. By reducing the perceived complexity we can make systemically complex games more accessible to a wider audience.

Using a variety of digital and non-digital games, a few different ways in which game designers can influence perceived complexity are suggested. This allows the exploration of the space between "minimal" and "elaborate" without compromising on the underlying complexity of the game system. Ideally, this will encourage designers to create complex, interesting systems that players from all walks of life can inhabit, explore, understand, and enjoy.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Virtual Actors and Emotion in Games
SPEAKER/S: David Cage (Quantic Dream) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 2:00- 3:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl

The creator of Heavy Rain talks about virtual actors, performance capture and art direction. Based on a tech demo presented to the public for the first time, he will develop how real time technologies can be used to create emotion and why he believes storytellers should be in control.

The Future of Japanese Games
SPEAKER/S: Keiji Inafune (Comcept Inc.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 5:00- 6:00 Room 132, North Hall 

With Western developers dominating the market and the Japanese game industry facing an unprecedented crisis, Mr. Inafune will cut right to the important questions surrounding the future of this unpredictable industry. Together with seminar participants, he will consider current trends and prevailing ideas in game development, while also looking back to what we might learn from the past. This seminar is a must for anyone involved in game development or those with an interest in the broader entertainment industry.

Art History for Game Devs: In Praise of Abstraction
SPEAKER/S: John Sharp (Georgia Institute of Technology) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 5:30- 6:30 Room 135, North Hall

Abstraction-- the process of generalizing a phenomenon in order to gain new perspectives and understanding-- has been a vital tool for creating experiences in nearly all art forms. Games themselves are of course abstract systems, but as a medium, we do not take full advantage of all the ways other arts use abstraction to approach their art forms and to expand their expressive potential. John Sharp will look at the ways painters, animators, poets, comic artists, decorative artists and dancers use abstraction to expand, deepen and give new shape to their artforms.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions
SPEAKER/S: Nicholas Clark (thatgamecompany)Rami Ismail (Vlambeer)Mathias Nordvall (Linkoping University)Robin Arnott (WRAUGHK)Alex Kerfoot (RPM Collective)Anna Anthropy (Auntie Pixelante)Mars Jokela (Self Aware Games)Kurt Bieg (Simple Machine)Bennett Foddy (foddy.net)John Sear (WallFour)Nicolo Tedeschi (Santa Ragione)Ramsey Nasser (Pizza Party)Robin Hunicke (thatgamecompany)Daniel Benmergui (Independent)Steve Swink (Enemy Airship)Jenova Chen (thatgamecompany)Douglas Wilson (Die Gute Fabrik) and Pietro Righi Riva (Santa Ragione) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 2:30- 4:30 Room 3014, West Hall, 3rd Fl

The Experimental Gameplay Session is back for its 10-year anniversary at GDC! In this fast-paced, game-packed session we will showcase a selection of surprising and intriguing prototypes made by innovation-minded game developers from all over the world. By demonstrating games that defying conventions and traditions in search for of new genres and ideas, this session aims to ignite the imagination of all game makers. Many games debuted at this session have enjoyed critical and commercial success- including Katamari Damacy, flOw, Braid, Portal, World of Goo and Today I Die. Come see what's happening on in the world of Experimental Gameplay and be inspired!