The Brain Game


“I’m hungry for knowledge about the human mind." -Rich Lemarchand, Lead Game Designer, Naughty Dog

If you listen to game developers talk about their business, common themes emerge. Now that the dust has settled on GDC, I’ve been thinking about what I heard people say last week in San Francisco.

Last year everyone was buzzing about social games, the Zynga juggernaut, and Minecraft. This year, no particular issue dominated - though Minecraft still gets mentioned a lot - but I detected a prevalent thread winding its way through a variety of sessions and casual conversations: your brain. Or perhaps more accurately: your brain on games.

Designers have always been interested in why we play games and what keeps us attached to them. Salen and Zimmerman’s “Rules of Play” analyzes systems, interactivity, and “meaningful play,” among other design principles. Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens” (which predates electronic games by nearly 25 years) discusses play as a fundamental human function. Check out my booklist on the left for more titles devoted to game design.

Better games through Psychology
But lately developers have sharpened their focus on how and why we play, turning to human psychology and brain response mechanisms to better understand what happens to us when we play games. Rich Lemarchand set the tone at GDC with his talk, “Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way.” Lemarchand (notably, a Philosophy and Physics major at Oxford) believes we overvalue “immersion” and “engagement” when what we really want is to grab the player’s attention and hold it for the duration of the game.

Psychology teaches us that no single method can work effectively because attention occurs in different forms. It can happen reflexively (e.g. a loud sound or flash of light), or when something new or different appears. It can also occur when we’re prompted to make a decision, or when the environment itself provokes us to move or think with subtle cues (e.g. thatgamecompany’s Flower and Journey). Lemarchand believes a savvy combination of aesthetics, character stories and narratives, and gameplay systems must be weaved together to function cooperatively and touch each of these attention generators. Leigh Alexander wrote a helpful summary of Lemarchand’s talk for Gamasutra.

Jason VandenBerghe (Creative Director at Ubisoft) continued the theme in his talk “The 5 Domains of Play: Applying Psychology’s Big 5 Motivation Domains to Games.” VandenBerghe presented the OCEAN framework of personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism - as useful models for matching players with styles of game design. While he acknowledges we can’t always make one-to-one connections between psychology and game design, his own research suggests a link between, for example, Conscientious personality types and players who enjoy games that emphasize Challenge.

The Unconscious Mind
In his micro-talk on Thursday, David Sirlin (Sirlin Games) discussed the power of the unconscious mind, especially in quick-reflex fighting games. He quoted Capcom’s Seth Killian’s observation, “I can learn more about someone from watching ten seconds of them playing Street Fighter than ten hours of them watching an RPG.” Sirlin believes we underestimate the versatility of the unconscious mind. When we think deliberately, we can handle only a few variables at once. “But when there are twelve variables, we do better with unconscious thought,” he noted. The top players in games like Starcraft and Street Fighter rely almost completely such mental processes. Sirlin believes game designers should do more to exploit this potential.

Dave Mark (Intrinsic Algorithm) and Brian Schwab (Blizzard) delivered a talk called “Less A More I: Using Psychology in Game AI,” and called for developers to reject sterile, robotic NPCs. They urged programmers and designers to consider the psychological biases players bring to their experiences and encouraged them to imbue these characters “with simple affects to exploit these expectations,” rendering more believable NPCs.

In a separate talk on player motivation, Scott Rigby from virtual environment think tank Immersyve presented research suggesting the importance of understanding players’ “specific psychological needs and understand the various categories of motivation,” such as autonomy, relatedness, and mastery. Naughty Dog programmer Kaitlyn Burnell picked up on the same three terms in her talk, citing studies that show players connect more with games that leverage these psychological factors.

The Emotional Puppeteer
Finally, the brain was the surprise focus of a famous, and decidedly NON-data-driven veteran of the games industry, composer Marty O’Donnell, best known for his work on the Halo trilogy.

O’Donnell believes the composer is the “Emotional Puppeteer” in games, and Bungie colleague Brandi House has been working with him to unlock how certain types of music provoke specific reactions in players. Through research conducted on Bungie employees, House was able to convince a skeptical O’Donnell that player-focused testing can map how music triggers specific emotional responses.

“Each piece of music has a unique emotional ’fingerprint,’” she observed. Harnessing this information can enable developers to more effectively trigger the responses they hope to provoke in players. “People are complicated,” O’Donnell noted. “Finding a common way of talking about emotions is not easy. We want to give composers some insight into people’s emotions, and we want this to be accurate.”

Quantifying emotional responses to music may strike some (e.g. this writer) as cold-hearted folly, but O’Donnell and House were plugging into a theme that received a lot of attention at this year’s GDC. Something tells me this data-munching genie won’t be put back into his bottle anytime soon.

Hitting the game design wall


Recently we've heard game designers, critics, and educators proclaim the limitless potential of games to do all sorts of wonderful things. They can make us smarter. They can teach our kids. They can help us better understand social and geopolitical issues.

Margaret Robertson (development director at Hide&Seek) has her doubts. This is worth noting because in previous GDC appearances Robertson has spoken forcefully, encouraging designers to summon their best selves and build games that challenge us to think harder, deeper, and more broadly. She consistently delivers among the most penetrating talks at GDC, and this year was no exception.

A funny thing happened to Robertson on her way to making the very kind of game she had always hoped to make. She failed. In her own blunt assessment, "I've been talking about the potential of games to deal with things of weight, important things. I thought this [project] was a great idea. It wasn't."

So, why did she fail, and what does this failure say about games and their capacity for addressing "things of weight?" This was the subject of Robertson's talk: "The Gamification of Death: How the Hardest Game Design Challenge Ever Demonstrates the Limits of Gaming." She promised "the bleakest GDC session ever," and she may have delivered it.

Robertson and her team at Hide&Seek were tasked with building a game to function as an online companion piece to "Dreams of a Life," a documentary about a woman named Joyce Vincent who died in her flat and lay unnoticed there for three years, her television still on.

"We were trying to make something real into a real game, a game about death," Robertson noted. "Games have a lot of death in them. We ought to be very good at it... This wasn't really a project about death, but about 'a death,' which is a much harder thing."

It was a challenging assignment from the beginning, and Robertson identified several factors that made the project especially difficult:

  • Aesthetics - The game was meant to accompany a serious documentary. "Is it going to feel right?" she wondered. How can a game help illuminate a sad and deeply disturbing true story? It was difficult, Robertson observed, to identify an aesthetic approach that didn't trivialize Joyce's story.

  • Timing - Robertson and her team needed to work in tandem with the film as it was being made, syncing with its production and release schedules. They had limited access to the creative team making the documentary, which was a passion project made by a small production company with no time to produce a film and collaborate with game designers.

  • Joyce - The documentary deals with the woman at the center of the story. "For us to present our own version of that story seemed unnecessary and substantially impertinent," Robertson noted. "Although you want to start there, it becomes a very difficult place to be." Producer Film4 initially suggested creating an explorable version of Joyce's flat, which Robertson considered "incredibly macabre" and inappropriate. Although Joyce was the starting point for the documentary, "we realized she couldn't be for us."

  • Budget - The projected game was never intended to be a AAA title, so Robertson and team had to work within serious budget constraints.

  • Compliance - Joyce's story touches on issues of suicide, domestic violence, and people who go missing. "We tried to be sensitive to these things, and these are very sobering issues," Robertson noted. But there were legal issues too. "When you deal with real people and raise questions of negligence," issues of libel may arise. "We were navigating in a very complicated space."

  • Not being an asshole - Joyce's story made Robertson consider how we make - or often fail to make - connections with people. If the game was to explore such connections by "digitally scraping sources" (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to explore how people connect, how often they connect, etc. "you soon realize you're starting to interfere with people's private lives," Robertson observed. This may "take you places you may have no right to go." Sometimes people disconnect or go off alone simply because they want to. The game couldn't comfortably exist in this domain.

  • Mission - Joyce was found by accident. "This terrible thing that happened, we just don't understand it." There was no 'mission' or discernible system to ascribe to Joyce's story. There was no 'goal objective.' Making a game to "save Joyce" or "get to her in time" "felt totally and thematically wrong" to Robertson. Such a game would be everything the film wasn't about.

Dreams of a Life poster

"At this point we began to get scared," Robertson noted. "If we don't use Joyce's narrative, and if we don't have a mission structure, what do we have?"

Robertson began thinking about systems and how she might identify something concrete upon which to build a game. "How can we boil this down to elements we can deal with that form structures?" The problem, which reflects the dominant theme of the film, is that Joyce's story is a lesson "that all sorts of systems failed. There was no system here, and that's the real story of Joyce's demise."

Studying the events that led to Joyce's death , says Robertson, reveals "imperceptible, longitudinal, tiny details" that add up to Joyce's story. When you try to apply a playable system to this, you impose a reductive structure to something that resists it. "You diminish it in insulting ways," says Robertson.

"A game about Joyce that can't be about Joyce" provoked Robertson to consider other options. She explored the possibility of putting the player in the position of navigating a series of rooms, solving puzzles to reunite people, reconcile differences, or make connections among important things. For example, the player could make a series of choices that cumulatively locate her on a matrix of Physical-Digital / Crowded-Alone, suggesting how our decisions and behaviors socialize or isolate us in the world.

Unfortunately, this design approach "failed to produce an experience that revealed anything worth digging to find." The moment a player senses his progress is being gated or monitored, he begins to second-guess the game. "You become self-conscious, and your choices don't really say anything true about you," observed Robertson. Role-playing games exploit this playfully, but such a system seemed ill-suited to illuminating Joyce's story or situation. More often than not, "players won't tell you what they think. In a game they tell you what they think you want them to think."

In the end, Robertson decided she couldn't make a game about the Joyce Vincent story. "So we made a thing that isn't a game. And it worked!" The interactive website "prompts responses to questions on society, friendship, love and loneliness...played against the backdrop of beautiful and haunting time-lapse imagery."

"We were able to photographically represent what we wanted to show and say. It is an interactive experience, but it isn't a game," said Robertson. "I really wanted to find a resolution, but couldn't. Maybe it's impossible to make a game with so many constraints."

Finally, Robertson asks "So what does all this prove?" She posits three "things that might be true":

  1. I might just be rubbish at this.
  2. It might be really hard.
  3. It might be a contradiction in terms.

"The minute you bolt game structures onto things that are real and important, there is a tension created," Robertson noted. Minimizing, trivializing, oversimplifying, being insulting - all these negative outcomes must be addressed.

Robertson's original view that "games can go anywhere! Games are unstoppable!!" have gradually evolved. "Now I have a more subtle conception of games." Games can't necessariy go everywhere, but Robertson doesn't believe that should frustrate us. When we begin to bump into the boundaries of what games can do, it may help us "better define what games are actually good at."

More importantly, it may also encourage us to find other solutions and to talk with each other about how we can work together to expand the reach of games. Her own failure may turn out to be the impetus for another designer's big idea.

Pulling their weight

Tug Of War 2

Do you wish your actions as a player mattered more in the game worlds you explore? Are you tired of the game industry copying Hollywood and spending more and more money on elaborate cutscenes for linear stories? Do you want to explore ways in which games can harness interactivity and take advantage of what's unique to our medium? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then this talk is for you! [1]

The schedulers for this year's GDC had a curious sense of timing. At the same hour David Cage was speaking about storytelling in Heavy Rain, Kent Hudson (lead designer at LucasArts) was across the hall speaking on the very same subject. It's tempting to suggest the two were a corridor apart, but miles away from each other philosophically. Tempting, but not quite accurate.

Coupled with LucasArts Creative Director Clint Hocking's session on dynamics, Hudson's talk offered a vision of interactive storytelling that would seem diametrically opposed to Cage's at Quantic Dream. And yet, Hudson's catalog blurb (above) could easily have been lifted from Cage's abstract. When Clint Hocking asks "What is the role of the author and of the interactor, and how do they share in the generation of meaning?" he is essentially posing the same question Cage addressed in Heavy Rain

In fact, it's easy to imagine Hocking observing "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game," but those words belong to Cage, who might as well be describing Hocking's goals for Far Cry 2.

If Cage and Hocking ask similar questions, then we might assume the gaping divide we perceive between them appears in their answers. But here again a simple binary "who's side are you on?" characterization doesn't quite work. 

No doubt, Cage's cavalier dismissal of mechanics and rules flies in the face of Hocking's system-driven approach to design. Cage still believes classic literary techniques (authored narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, closure, etc.) apply to games, and he's more comfortable relying on traditional dramaturgy than Hocking.

So I'm not suggesting both designers are essentially saying the same thing. They aren't. Nevertheless, I saw some noteworthy common ground emerge between Cage and Hocking at GDC this year, mainly due to the continuing evolution of Hocking's vision for interactive storytelling.

Clinthocking Hocking still clearly believes in player agency and the unique possibilities for emergent meaning that games can provide. But in his talk this year, Hocking focused more on people than systems. "Meaning comes from the application of skin to mechanics," he observed. "The mechanics don't, in fact, create meaning, but how we play does." 

Dynamics that produce meaning stem from a designed system, of course, but Hocking's example of clever authorship in this regard was telling. He referred to Hemingway's six-word short story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," in which the author's meaning is clear, despite a lack of details or specifics. The balance between authorial intention and reader interpretation suggest essential roles for each, and that's a bit of a recalibration (if not a conceptual reversal) for Hocking. It makes the distance between him and Cage look more like an ocean than a galaxy. 

Hocking wondered how changing a narrative's dynamics might also change its meaning. Referencing Brenda Brathwaite's Holocaust-themed board game Train, Hocking suggested that it's possible to alter an abstract game like Tetris by applying a narrative layer on top of it. Attaching Train's narrative to Tetris (cooperate with the Nazis and pack together as many blocks full of people as possible; or defy them by creating as many gaps as possible) changes what Tetris means and suggests something important about how games impart meaning. 

"We must observe the game at run-time to understand what it means to the players," Hocking noted. Small choices made in apparently insignificant moments help define the player and his experience. Hocking related the story of a Go master who characterized a challenger's move as "ugly. …it was like smearing ink over the painting we had made." The player is how he plays.

David Cage sees such moments as opportunities to "bend" the story. Hocking sees them as expressions of a player's personality and sensibilities. Both see the potential meaning derived as synthetic and instantial, in-the-moment dialectics between player and game. "How you play the game matters greatly," observed Hocking. What the player brings to that experience will help define the meaning of that experience - sentiments Cage expressed in his talk as well.

I don't claim that David Cage and Clint Hocking are more alike than different as designers. But I am suggesting their ideas aren't as diametrically opposed as we might think. It may be fun to pit one against another, but creativity doesn't work like Parliamentary debate. One idea needn't invalidate another to 'win.' Both can be right. Both can be wrong. The other two outcomes are also in play.

If GDC has value as an idea incubator, it's because the conversations it hosts promote multiple points of view for broad consideration. This isn't about sing-along Kumbayah; it's about sharing and maximizing resources to make better games. To this end, Cage and Hocking are pulling more than their weight.

Rollercoaster bias


David Cage says Heavy Rain succeeds where other narrative games fail because it delivers an "emotional, story-driven, and meaningful experience for adults." Cage made his case in a talk at GDC entitled "Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in Heavy Rain."

Before I get to the substance of Cage's talk, a little disclosure is probably in order. I didn't like Heavy Rain, and I'm dubious about many of Cage's claims about his game. I entered his talk skeptical and exited unconvinced. Nevertheless, I'm intrigued by his ideas about game design, and some of his assertions are undeniable. Cage makes a strong case for why so many narrative games leave us feeling cold and a little embarrassed. As a designer, he's shooting for something richer and more mature, and he's a passionate advocate for games aimed at adults.

The bias problem
David Cage is certain. He knows what he knows, and his proof is in the pudding Quantic Dream cooked up for us with Heavy Rain. Cage wants to deliver hard truths to a room full of designers invested in the future of narrative games, but his vision is impaired by three limiting biases:

  • Selection bias - Cage uses his own work as proof of his theories, so all the evidence for the validity of his claims traces back to Heavy Rain. The other games Cage cited in his presentation were used as foils against which the superiority of Heavy Rain could be seen.

  • Measurement bias - Cage measures his data toward an expected outcome. He doesn't account for alternative or negative responses to the game, so the measurement tools he relies on - "critical acclaim," "commercial success," and "industry accolades" - skew his conclusions toward his desired results.

  • Experimenter bias - Cage wants to prove that his own work points the way forward as game design, and he relies on qualitative evidence, which is not a problem per se. Bias is introduced when the experimenter fails to account for the variability inevitable in qualitative research. The experimenter must show that he understands this and has done his best to lessen its impact or account for it in his conclusions. Cage doesn't do this. Heavy Rain succeeds because he says it does.

Having noted these biases, Cage's ideas still deserve a hearing. In a nutshell, here's what he said:

Heavy Rain is purposely different from games aimed primarily at teenagers and based on violence. Cage noted that even ostensibly 'mature' games put the player in the shoes of a good guy, who then proceeds as a mass murderer through the game. Furthermore, according to Cage, most games rely on over-familiar, repetitive mechanics. "We've based games on the same handful of paradigms for 30 years. ...How much meaning can there be if all we can do is shoot people and jump on platforms?"

Technology, says Cage, has progressed much faster than the concepts behind games. Heavy Rain was an effort to be more ambitious, and Cage outlined four primary goals the game tried to achieve:

  • Feature adult themes and tone
  • Tell a meaningful story
  • Offer varied interactions
  • Experiment with new paradigms.

"It's about freeing my players from the interface," Cage noted. Heavy Rain was designed to keep the player inside the game and develop an empathic relationship to its characters. To achieve this, Cage wanted to steer players away from experiential tropes like competition, aggression, and win/lose. He also wanted to avoid cutscenes. "The player should play the story. I didn't want to make a game that the player would watch. ...I wanted the player to be the actor, the co-director, and the co-writer of the game."

Cage believes role-play reinforces involvement, and that's why Heavy Rain includes trivial tasks like shaving and drinking a glass of orange juice. Such activities glue the player to the character, according to Cage. When something important happens later, "it matters that you were in his shoes earlier" doing little things. This identification process is vital in creating an emotional connection. It makes later decisions more difficult and meaningful, Cage contends.

Cage described Heavy Rain's blend of old and new writing techniques. Classic elements like narrative arc, conflicts and obstacles, and closure serve narrative games, but they aren't enough when player interaction is added to the mix. "Most games we call non-linear consist of linear missions we can do in whatever order we like." Heavy Rain offers the player the possibility of "bending stories" with fixed start, middle, and end points, but "narrative space" in between for meaningful player choices. These options don't result in win or lose outcomes; instead they present different outcomes the player feels responsible for producing.

"We tried to create varied and subtle emotions." For example, Cage and team wanted to impart a strong sense of discomfort when the player must disrobe as a female character in front of a man - a significant behavioral departure from what most games suggest to male players. "Identification is everything," noted Cage. "You don't project yourself into an empty shell."

Cage sees Heavy Rain as a major departure from other narrative games. "Most games are about challege. Heavy Rain is about the journey. We tried to move the challenge from the controller to the mind of the player." In Heavy Rain, failure is not bad or good. Players bear with the consequences of their actions, which creates a more immersive experience. "The journey is what really matters," noted Cage.

Late in his presentation, Cage began to lob bombshells. "Game mechanics are evil." "Mechanics are a limitation." "Forget video game rules. Mechanics, levels, bosses, ramping, points, inventory, ammo, platforms, missions, game over, cutscenes ARE THINGS FROM THE PAST."

He also offered some poignant observations. "Killing someone in a game is the most unimportant thing you've done in your life. ...Actions should have consequences." Cage believes we must present genuine moral dilemmas, not merely branching path options as 'choice.' "We didn't ask you if you wanted to be good or bad. Our goal is to ask you questions that are difficult to answer." Cage described meeting one player who, when faced with the choice to kill a man in the game, turned off his console for two weeks to think about it.

"Why are we the only medium in the world that is so empty?" Cage asked. Video games exist as a niche medium because the industry has made them so. If a solution to better storytelling in games is to be found, several realities must be faced, according to Cage.

  • Narrative and emotion are generally not considered important by developers.
  • Action and narrative are typically disconnected.
  • Most games are too long.
  • Mechanics are a problem.
  • Characterization is often inconsistent.
  • Creators are not empowered.

"We need to have the writer ruling development. He should be the god."

Cage believes story and gameplay should be designed simultaneously from the drawing board stage. "Anything can be play; any story can be told. I made a game about child abduction. As long as it's sincere and done with talent, it can be done. ...Make games for adults. Seriously."

Come with me to GDC

ZoomH4 I'm leaving for GDC soon, and this year I've decided to try something different. In the past, I've written about sessions I've attended (and I'll continue that this year), but those essays hardly account for the broader experience of being at GDC and taking in all the hectic goodness it has to offer. 

So this year I'm bringing my trusty Zoom H4 recorder, and I'll use it to capture the the sounds of GDC, as well as the people who make the event such an unforgettable experience. I'm not permitted to record formal sessions, but I'll cover those as posts.

If you've listened to my podcasts, you'll find these audio diaries much more informal and off-the-cuff. My goal is to convey a sense of what it's like to be at GDC from a single attendee's perspective, so I'll hit the record button whenever I find something worth sharing. Then I'll piece them together with minimal editing, clean up the audio a bit, and post them.

GDC is the largest annual gathering of game developers in the world. If you care about games and the people who make them, this is the place to be. Sadly, few non-developers have the opportunity to attend. I'm one of those lucky few and grateful for the chance. I hope my audio diaries will give you a glimpse of what it's like to attend GDC, from arriving in San Francisco to collapsing in a heap back home on Saturday.

Thanks for reading and listening!

GDC for curious minds


A few days ago I sat down to plan my schedule for next week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Then my head exploded. This year's event features 474 unique sessions, keynotes, roundtables, and tutorials separated into various tracks (e.g. Game Design, Programming, Visual Arts, etc.) 

With such a mind-boggling array of possibilities and a short amount of time to to squeeze them all in, which events shouldn't be missed?

I'm not a game developer. I'm a critic and a teacher, so I attend GDC to learn as much as I can about how games are built and the people who build them. I attend GDC with a curious mind, eager to deepen my understanding of games as art; games as the result of creative team-based development; games as an industry.

If you happen to be like me - or if you're not attending GDC, but keen to know what's on offer this year - I've culled the massive schedule of events and extracted a list of sessions that look especially interesting to me. It's still an unwieldy list, and it's impossible to attend them all, but it's definitely more manageable than the monster list.

I've divided my list into three thematic parts: 1) How We Did It. 2) Big Ideas. 3) Where Do We Go From Here? You'll find some crossover sessions on my list - some "big ideas" also address where games are headed next - but in general I think these three categories separate the sessions effectively. So here goes. I hope you'll find this useful.


Classic Game Postmortem: PRINCE OF PERSIA
SPEAKER/S: Jordan Mechner 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 10:30-11:30 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Decades before it was a Hollywood film with millions of dollars and hundreds of workers supporting its production, PRINCE OF PERSIA was mostly the project of a single man. Jordan Mechner, who also created KARATEKA and later went on to work in the film industry, rotoscoped the game's fluid and realistic character animations, designed its difficult puzzles, crafted its thrilling sword-fighting combat, and penned its captivating story. He will present a postmortem discussion on the landmark cinematic platformer that would go on to influence not just a whole series of 3D PRINCE OF PERSIA games, but also titles like FLASHBACK, TOMBRAIDER, and LIMBO.

DEAD SPACE 2: Musical Postmortem
SPEAKER/S: Jason Graves (Jason Graves Music, Inc.) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 10:30-11:30 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Composer Jason Graves will highlight the challenges and opportunities that presented themselves while scoring DEAD SPACE 2. The sequel builds on the same music as sound design approach of the original game, while extending and altering it for further dramatic effect. This panel will discuss living up to the hype of the original, how the score mirrors the plot and action of the sequel, and detail the many different orchestral recording sessions that occurred over the space of twelve months.

SPEAKER/S: Tom Chilton (Blizzard Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 1:30- 2:30 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.DESCRIPTION: In creating the CATACLYSM expansion for WORLD OF WARCRAFT, we endeavored to re-create the existing core game world in addition to providing new content for fans of the game. We felt the time had come to rejuvenate aging parts of the game world for existing, former, and new players while at the same time preserving and even enhancing what made the game world special from the start. Many difficult decisions had to be made while going down this path, so we'd like to share our approach to navigating those challenges in terms of design philosophy and execution.

Beyond Horror: Art Directing DEAD SPACE 2
SPEAKER/S: Ian Milham (Electronic Arts Redwood Shores) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: Art directors and game artists today are faced with an every more hit-driven market, where big budgets demand mass appeal. In this lecture, Ian Milham, Art Director on the DEAD SPACE franchise, will illustrate how the franchise's art was evolved to deliver broader appeal and higher production values, and address the lessons learned from the first title.

Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in HEAVY RAIN
SPEAKER/S: David Cage (Quantic Dream) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:30- 5:30 Room 3007, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: In creating HEAVY RAIN, we tried to build an experience entirely based on interactive storytelling, emotional involvement and contextual actions. This new approach forced us to reconsider many traditional paradigms of video games often considered as set in stone. Through the analysis of concrete examples from HEAVY RAIN, we will show how key scenes were conceived, what emotional impact was expected and how the game used visuals, narrative and game play to achieve emotional involvement. Through comparisons with traditional game design, we will try to discover why video games in general struggle to tell compelling stories and what solutions can be found.

Designing LIMBO's Puzzles
SPEAKER/S: Jeppe Carlsen (Playdead) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:30- 5:30 Room 308, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: LIMBO is a physics based puzzle platformer. The game has a minimalistic control scheme, but even though minimalism is in focus, the game is gameplay focused and very challenging. How these challenges came to be, is the focus of this presentation. Using concrete gameplay, Jeppe presents LIMBO's puzzle design principles and the creative, iterative process of going from early puzzle idea to a polished puzzle in the shipped game. Following the introduction into the principles and development process, Jeppe fires up LIMBO's custom made editor for a live, carefully commented creation of a rudimentary puzzle. Hopefully the demonstration will convince some in the audience that the tools and choices we made, which enabled us to prototype and test gameplay ideas in a short loop, was instrumental to the creative process and, consequently, the end result.

SPEAKER/S: Eric Chahi (Ubisoft) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 9:00-10:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Released across more than a dozen platforms since its 1991 debut, OUT OF THIS WORLD (a.k.a. ANOTHER WORLD) has long been a favorite among critics and sophisticated gamers alike for its cinematic cutscenes and atmospheric presentation. The platformer's distinctive visual style, minimal but effective use of music and sound effects, and ability to convey its story and emotions without any words captured the imaginations of countless players, as well as those of future luminaries like Fumito Ueda (ICO) and Hideo Kojima (METAL GEAR SOLID). OUT OF THIS WORLDs creator Eric Chahi will reveal his process developing the innovative game and building its memorable scenes.

Interactive Music Scoring Methods for MASS EFFECT 2
SPEAKER/S: Jack Wall (Wall of Sound, Inc.) and Brian DiDomenico (Wall of Sound) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 9:00-10:00 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Making music for video games involves more than simply composing and producing great music. It has to follow the story and the action in a way where it's not in the way. The award-winning music from the 2nd installment of the groundbreaking MASS EFFECT series was conceived and composed with interactivity in mind from the music design phase to the final note written for the game. This session explores the design, development and implementation of the interactive score as well as the pitfalls and successes in doing so. With over 750 unique assets, particular focus is paid to communicating as a team and asset management.

Biofeedback in Gameplay: How Valve Measures Physiology to Enhance Gaming Experience
SPEAKER/S: Mike Ambinder (Valve Software) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 3002, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: This presentation discusses how Valve is making use of biofeedback - the measurement, display, analysis, modification, manipulation, and response of physiological signals - to both explore new avenues of gameplay and to improve in-house playtesting processes. Current control schemes - mouse and keyboard, gamepad, gestural remote - rely on the transformation of physical manipulations - button presses, hand and arm motions, etc. - into onscreen representations of player intent. These schemes are limited in the sense of providing input about a player's desired actions in-game while providing little information about player sentiment. The addition of physiological signals allows for a new dimension of transformation - using estimates of a players emotional state to tailor a more immersive, dynamic, and calibrated game experience; these signals enable the inclusion of a heretofore ignored aspect of player experience into a viable component of gameplay. 

Classic Game Postmortem - DOOM
SPEAKER/S: Tom Hall (Loot Drop) and John Romero (Loot Drop) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 3:00- 4:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Few games can match the ubiquity and legacy of DOOM, the seminal first-person shooter that ushered in thousands of mods, clones, and successors. Nearly every significant FPS, from RESISTANCE to HALF-LIFE, CALL OF DUTY to HALO, owes its success in part to the Id Software game. Programmer, Game Designer, Level Designer and DOOM II final boss, John Romero, will deliver a postmortem on the game showing never-before-seen material, memorializing its immersive but nerve-wracking 3D environments, networked multiplayer deathmatches, Satanic imagery and themes, Barney WADs, exploding barrels, and BFG 9000. Romero was a co-founder of id Software, among other companies, and also worked on other significant shooters like WOLFENSTEIN 3D and QUAKE.

The Environment is the Orchestra: Soundscape Composition in LIMBO
SPEAKER/S: Martin Stig Andersen (Playdead) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 3:00- 4:00 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: The session highlights the potentials of electroacoustic music and soundscape composition in the context of games. By dismissing the traditional dividing line between music and sound effects, a new range of possibilities in audiovisual design emerges. Putting Playdeads LIMBO on display, composer and sound designer Martin Stig Andersen demonstrates how the games award winning audio was created, focusing on how sound effects and ambient noises were adapted to carry out functions traditionally assigned to conventional music. The session also features examples of core integration between game and audio design, eventually giving way to a kind of game-play music.

Classic Game Postmortem - MANIAC MANSION
SPEAKER/S: Ron Gilbert (Double Fine Productions) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 11:00-12:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Cherished by adventure game fans and reviled by hamsters everywhere, MANIAC MANSION was the first adventure game LucasArts developed on its SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) platform -- the beloved scripting engine powering and enabling ports for subsequent classics like SAM & MAX, LOOM, FULL THROTTLE, DAY OF THE TENTACLE, and the MONKEY ISLAND series. Ron Gilbert, famous for his contributions at LucasArts and now working at Double Fine Productions, will talk about his work on MANIAC MANSION, touching on the game's multiple endings, point-and-click interface and it's oddball cast of characters.

The Story of CAVE STORY
SPEAKER/S: Daisuke 'Pixel' Amaya (Independent) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 11:00-12:00 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: In his first-ever public speech and Western appearance regarding his much-beloved 2D indie title CAVE STORY, Japanese 'dojin' game developer Daisuke 'Pixel' Amaya will discuss his creative process in making the PC freeware title that debuted in 2004. The evocative retro-themed game, which took 5 years to complete, has been praised by many, localized into English, and is an Independent Games Festival finalist this year in its enhanced WiiWare and DSiWare version. As a 2D platform adventure with genuine emotion, depth, and an intriguing story, the title has been praised for its attention to detail and endearing characters. In this postmortem of both the original title and the versions that followed, Amaya will talk about what went both right and wrong in creating a game that turned out completely unlike what he initially had in mind, and what all game creators can learn from his inspiring story of bedroom programmer whose acclaimed work reached millions.

ONE FALLS FOR EACH OF US: The Prototyping of Tragedy
SPEAKER/S: Brenda Brathwaite (Lolapps) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 4:30- 5:30 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Incorporating 50,000 wooden figurines, each painted by hand, Brenda Brathwaites latest game is ONE FALLS FOR EACH of US. It is the fourth game in the Mechanic is the Message series, takes up an entire room, is intentionally inconvenient to set up and chronicles the experience of the Native Americans as they walked and died upon the Trail of Tears. Like the other games in the series, Brathwaite uses the medium of the game mechanic much like traditional artists use paint to capture and express difficult events. It is a form of historical system design which provokes both player and designer to look and interact more deeply than they otherwise might. Influenced by the works of Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra, Marcel Duchamp and Gerhard Richter, Brathwaites works push games in directions not yet considered. From the games initial conception through to its current state, Brathwaite discusses the inspirations for ONE FALLS FOR EACH of US and the series, recent iterations and expands upon the prototyping of tragedy and offers direction on how our own real world experiences can serve as needed catharsis and inspiration in any type of game.


Dynamics: The State of the Art
SPEAKER/S: Clint Hocking (LucasArts) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 10:30-11:30 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: In 2009, Chris Hecker fielded the question, 'How do games mean?' Crucially distinct from the question of what a specific game might mean, this question lies at the heart of what games are and why they matter as art, entertainment and culture. Obviously, games mean via their dynamics. But in what ways do dynamics yield meaning? What is the difference between meaning embedded in mechanics and true dynamical meaning? What is the variable breadth of meaning in a dynamic system or system of systems? What is the role of the author and of the interactor, and how do they share in the generation of meaning? How do specific games, from GO to MINECRAFT to RED DEAD REDEMPTION generate meaning?What specifically do these successful games mean, and to what extent is their ability to generate meaning a component of their success? This talk dives deeply into these questions in an attempt to lay the groundwork for a rigorous understanding of dynamics.

GDC Microtalks 2011: One Hour, Ten Speakers, Hundreds of Fun New Ideas
SPEAKER/S: Jamin Brophy-Warren (Kill Screen Magazine), Jason Rohrer (Independent), Colleen Macklin (Parsons the New School for Design), Naomi Clark (Fresh Planet), Brandon Boyer (Independent Games Festival), David Jaffe (Eat Sleep Play), Michael John (Electronic Arts), Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog), Brenda Brathwaite (Lolapps) and Asi Burak (Games for Change) DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 12:00- 1:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.DESCRIPTION: The fast-moving talk format with fans all around the world returns to GDC for another hour of lightning-fast lectures, visual punch and innovative ideas. The concept is simple: MC Richard Lemarchand invites nine experts from different game design-related fields to give a short talk on a subject related to this years theme, 'Say How You Play' - a discussion of new contexts for play and games. Each speaker gets 20 slides, each of which will be displayed for exactly 16 seconds before automatically advancing, giving the speaker five minutes and 20 seconds to deliver their fresh game design perspectives.

Life and Death and Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime
SPEAKER/S: Frank Lantz (Area/Code/Zynga) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 1:30- 2:30 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: This session is an in-depth exploration of two important games, Go, the ancient abstract strategy game, and Poker, the gambling card game. Go and Poker are epic, world-changing games, they have spanned generations, and absorbed entire lifetimes of passionate study and play. They change how we see the world and have affected the course of human history. Mixing personal experience, historical exposition, technical analysis, and philosophical reflection, this talk will seek to understand how a handful of black and white stones and a deck of cards can demonstrate the immense scope and sublime power of games.

Seven Ways a Video Game Can Be Moral
SPEAKER/S: Richard Rouse III (Ubisoft Montreal) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 3007, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: What does it mean for a story to be moral? Many developers see the honest exploration of morality as part of the great potential of video games. Though games such as Ultima IV, Fallout 3, Alpha Centauri and The Sims have dipped their toes into moral waters, other media have been exploring morality for centuries and have done so much more effectively than games. This fast-paced follow-up to the popular GDC 2010 talk, Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry, examines moral storytelling from a variety of mediums to see what structures and techniques have worked. We then look at how these techniques can be transformed to work with gameplay, using interactivity to deliver moral storytelling in an entirely new way.

The Failure Workshop
SPEAKER/S: Brad Wardell (Stardock), Chris Hecker (definition six, inc.), Kyle Gabler (2D Boy), Matthew Wegner (Flashbang Studios), Kyle Gray (Tomorrow Corporation) and George Fan (PopCap Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: A series of rapid-fire presentations by successful developers on their less-than-successful projects, the Failure Workshop focuses on the glorious failures we all have, and the successful games that emerged as a result. Each speaker will have less than 12 minutes to showcase a game or feature that has never seen the light of day and explain: 1) why they thought it was a good idea 2) why it failed3) what they gained from the whole experience

From MYTH to HALO: Marty O'Donnell's Adventures with Adaptive Audio, Creative Collaboration and Geese!
SPEAKER/S: Marty O'Donnell (Bungie) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 3010, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: What is my definition of Adaptive Audio and how has it evolved over the past 15 years? What is my approach to composing music for games? What is my approach to implementing music in games? What are my thoughts about the purpose of collaborating with other creative people when writing music or directing audio for a game? What are my thoughts about the future of the music business in relation to game publishing? What are geese doing in the title of this talk? I'll attempt to answer all these questions but no one should expect complete clarity.

In Days of Yore
SPEAKER/S: Chris Crawford (Storytron) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: The earliest days of computer games were times of technological swashbuckling, shoestring budgets, amateur designers, amateurish products, and wild experimentation. Just getting things to move around on the screen was a huge technical challenge. Nobody knew what the hell they were doing, but everybody knew that we were creating a new medium and a new industry. Come back to the Wild West days of game design, when games were created by individuals and sold in zip-loc bags. You'll be amazed by the differences -- and stunned by the similarities.

No Freaking Respect! Social Game Developers Rant Back
SPEAKER/S: Chris Hecker (definition six, inc.), Eric Zimmerman (Independent), Trip Hawkins (Digital Chocolate), Brenda Brathwaite (Lolapps), Ian Bogost (The Georgia Institute of Technology), Brian Reynolds (Zynga), Jason Della Rocca (Perimeter Partners), Steve Meretzky (Playdom) and Scott Jon Siegel (Playdom) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 12:00- 1:00 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: For the last six years at the GDC rant session, game developers have made themselves heard. They have trashed their publishers, shocked players and fans, and expressed heartfelt passion about the industry that we all love to hate. Last year, we heard from developers that had recently lost their companies and their jobs. This year, its time for the underclass to get even. At the GDC 2011 rant session, we have invited the people who everyone is blaming with ruining the industry: social network game developers. At least since last years GDC, when social game talks were met with boos and catcalls, they have been taking your abuse. At the rant session, well give social game developers a chance to strike back. What exactly does burn them up? They may well rail against common criticsms of social games, but THEY choose the topics of their rants, so be prepared for the unexpected. Cutting through the clutter of polite industry chit-chat, the rant session takes on the issues that matter to developers in a no-holds-barred format. Fasten your seat belts and prepare for strong opinions from some of the game industry's most distinguished and dissatisfied game developers. The invited panelists from scarred veteran to hothead youngster - will be given free reign. You have been warned. 

The Secret (Art) History of Games
SPEAKER/S: John Sharp (Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 1:30- 2:30 Room 304, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: What connects Renaissance parlor games, 18th century French swing sets, Go, Spacewar!, pinball, Chess and Wolfenstein 3D? This session looks at the often obscured connections and relationships between art and games as forms of expression and experience, and the ways the two reflect something substantial about their time and place. Sometimes, games were praised, and other times, they were despised. But in all cases, a common thread is the degree to which the games were woven into the culture.

An Apology for Roger Ebert
SPEAKER/S: Brian Moriarty (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 2:00- 3:00 Room 135, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: In November of 2005, internationally renowned film critic Roger Ebert unleashed a firestorm of criticism with a blog entry claiming that the nature of the medium [video games] prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. 4+ years and thousands of angry comments later, Ebert wearily admits that he was a fool for ever mentioning video games in the first place, but will not retract his opinion that games can never be art. Who is this Roger Ebert guy? Is he right? Does his opinion matter? Why should we even care whether or not games are art? Just what is this art thing, anyway? Professor Brian Moriarty, 29-year gaming veteran and renowned lecturer and teacher, was the first (in a 1998 GDC address) to hail computer games as the defining art form of the 21st century. He has pondered long and hard on these questions, and finds himself reluctantly siding with ... Ebert! In this ill-advised lecture, he foolishly dares to enter the belly of the beast, offering a passionate defense of the beleaguered film critic at the game industrys most prestigious event. He will reveal his own eye-opening definition of art, explain why current game designs dont aspire to it, and argue that its both practically and spiritually essential to pursue it anyway. Has the Professor finally lost his mind? Will you bring tomatoes, or rotten eggs? Prepare to have your mind bent and your soul seared in one of the Professors legendary presentations, his first GDC appearance since 2002.


Designing Games for the "43-Year-Old Woman"
SPEAKER/S: Chris Trottier (Zynga) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 3:00- 4:00 Room 308, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: Chris will pull from her experience working on games like The Sims and FarmVille to explore what factors make a game take the leap from approachable to mass market phenomenon. This session is not about all women or female game developers. It is about your cousin's wife who's obsessed with collecting FarmVille animals or Sims custom content: what her day is like, when and why she turns to entertainment, and how you can best engage her when she does.

Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?
SPEAKER/S: Kent Hudson (LucasArts) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Wednesday 4:30- 5:30 Room 3006, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Do you wish your actions as a player mattered more in the game worlds you explore? Are you tired of the game industry copying Hollywood and spending more and more money on elaborate cutscenes for linear stories? Do you want to explore ways in which games can harness interactivity and take advantage of what's unique to our medium? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then this talk is for you! It will describe values and techniques with which you can put the player in charge of his or her own narrative.

Keep it Together: Encouraging Cooperative Behavior During Co-op Play
SPEAKER/S: Patrick Redding (Ubisoft Toronto) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 9:00-10:00 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: Cooperative games pose a unique challenge for designers. How do they deliver coherent, meaningful play while permitting two or more players to take independent action in the same space? Ubisoft game director Patrick Redding (Splinter Cell: Conviction) reviews a range of practical tools for encouraging co-op players to work together. Drawing on a variety of recent games, including the lessons of Convictions own co-op campaign, he looks at how players seek out meaningful cooperation as a basis for social interaction. Redding examines level design, game dynamics, presentation and feedback, communication and metagame strategies for enabling collective action.

No Explanation Necessary: Minimizing Exposition in Games
SPEAKER/S: Jeremy Bernstein (Electric Entertainment) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 10:30-11:30 Room 130, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Exposition is a critical component of a game's narrative experience, giving the player the background and context necessary to follow what's going on. But exposition can also suck. Hard. This talk examines why exposition is necessary, discusses why and how we tend to overdo it, and provides concrete techniques for minimizing and streamlining exposition so that it benefits the game instead of slowing it down. These approaches are not just writing-centric, but can also be applied at multiple levels and all stages of game production. Case studies involve Halo and Dead Space 2. Don't press 'A' to skip this one!

Experimental Gameplay Sessions
SPEAKER/S: Michael Brough (Independent), Nicolai Troshinsky (Independent), Mihir Sheth (University of Southern California), Chris Bell (Carnegie Mellon ETC), Agustin Perez Fernandez (Independent), Frank Lantz (Area/Code/Zynga), Robin Hunicke (thatgamecompany), Richard Lemarchand (Naughty Dog), Daniel Benmergui (Independent), Jonathan Blow (Number None, Inc.), Andy Schatz (Pocketwatch Games), Asher Vollmer (University of Southern California), Jason Rohrer (Independent) and Hanford Lemoore (Independent) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 1:30- 3:30 Room 303, South Hall
DESCRIPTION: The 9th annual Experimental Gameplay Sessions invites developers of experimental gameplay to demonstrate and discuss their games and prototypes. In a series of short presentations, this session focuses on the exploration of new frontiers in game design. Independent games, academic projects, and AAA mainstream games that break new ground are all represented.

Industry Lessons Learned and Applying Them to the Road Ahead
SPEAKER/S: Cliff Bleszinski (Epic Games) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 1:30- 2:30 Room 3014, West Hall 3rd Fl.
DESCRIPTION: Cliff Bleszinski has not done a public lecture in years and has a lot to say. First, the seminar will focus on how understanding marketing and PR are not only important to a game's promotion but to its actual design and implementation. The talk then continues on into talking about branding - not only an IP but also characters and even and one's self as a developer. The lecture will continue to then discuss the importance of story and context, the fact that a genre can live or die based on its camera, as well as fun tips such as how to use the seven deadly sins to make a better game. Finally, the current state of the industry and the future will also be discussed with Bleszinski's thoughts on AAA gaming, social gaming, and the connected future, as well as general observations about the manner in which the gaming industry is run.

The Player-Shaped Hole: Allowing for Both Narrative and Story
SPEAKER/S: Richard Dansky (Red Storm) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Thursday 3:00- 4:00 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Game developers want to tell compelling stories. Game players want to experience them. Those would seem to be congruent desires. And yet, the conflict between narrative intent and player freedom can produce almost insurmountable narrative challenges. This session is intended as a look at that conflict, the underlying assumptions and misapprehensions that produce it, and ways that it can be reduced, avoided or eliminated - all by remembering the need for the player-shaped hole in the middle of the narrative.

Strategy Games: The Next Move
SPEAKER/S: Ian Fischer (Robot Entertainment), Soren Johnson (EA2D), Dustin Browder (Blizzard Entertainment), Jon Shafer (Stardock) and Tom Chick (Quarter to Three) 
DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 11:00-12:00 Room 134, North Hall
DESCRIPTION: Strategy games have one of the longest traditions within the industry, including two of last year's biggest games, STARCRAFT II AND CIVILIZATION V. In what direction is the genre heading? What are some of most important, and possibly overlooked, gameplay innovations of the last few years? How has the growth on online, persistent play affected the way strategy games are developed? Has the rapidly expanding mainstream audience changed how strategy games are targeted, or is the genre at risk of turning into a ghetto? As the market moves towards free-to-play, micro-transaction-based gaming, how will strategy gaming adapt while maintaining fairness of play? Is there still room for traditional, boxed strategy games?

The seeds


What we create touches the hearts and spirits of people and moves them. This gives us big responsibilities. I imagine the faces of my wife, friends, and complete strangers. More and more I think about the face of my son. These are who we make games for. Inspire them.  -Yoshio Sakamoto

Here's a highly generalized assertion based on impressions from the three most recent San Francisco GDCs. My stab at profundity is probably more than blind guesswork, but less than wisdom from industry experience.

It seems to me that Japanese designers have a particular knack for discussing the personal origins of their work - the seeds of inspiration, if you will - but almost no inclination to discuss the nuts and bolts. Western designers, on the other hand, are incredibly adept at lifting the hood on their work and explaining precisely how all the parts function; but they rarely connect us to the passionate impulses from which their ideas flow.

Exceptions exist, of course. Brenda Brathwaite's presentation on Train last week was easily the most personal of the conference; and Tsuchida and Yajima's talk on automatic sound triggering in FFXIII was mostly technical.

But more often than not, I think my thesis holds. Yoshio Sakamoto's (dir. Metroid series) presentation on designing for different audiences at this year's event reminded me of others I've attended by notable Japanese designers like Suda, Ueda, Kojima, and Miyamoto. Compared to their western contemporaries (Wright, Meier, Hocking, Pagliarulo), these Japanese designers seem to prefer articulating personal impulses and tracing genesis ideas.

At a conference like GDC, this approach can frustrate some who come looking for practical tools or concrete takeaways. On several occasions I've been advised to avoid presentations by Japanese developers in the Design Track of GDC. "They never say anything," cautioned one GDC veteran. "They're here mostly for PR, and they stick to a rigid script."

If someone had asked for my impressions after the first 30 minutes of his talk, I might have agreed. He presented a history of the Metroid series, showed a promotional trailer for the upcoming Metroid: Other M, and generally paid tribute to the genius of his boss Satoru Iwata.

But then his remarks turned in a more revealing direction. He discussed his need to explore both the serious and comic sides of his personality, aware (painfully, he hinted) that Iwata thinks of him "only as someone with a comical side" because of his work producing the WarioWare games. 

Sakamoto explained that he's fascinated by horror and traced his respect for the genre to Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, and he cited Argento's Deep Red as deeply inspirational. "Before Deep Red, horror always left me feeling empty. Argento arrested me." 

Sakamoto studied Argento's work and concluded that his primary tools for engaging his audience were mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast. "My early design work was an homage to Argento's work. I have continued this through my career, and Other M is no exception." But soon after launching the Metroid series, Sakamoto realized that he needed to find his own aesthetic sensibility. 

"I'm not a movie fanatic. I probably don't watch any more movies than the average person," Sakamoto stated. "However, films have opened my eyes to techniques that can bring a story to life. I'm not obssessed with them, but they have inpired me." Sakamoto began looking beyond horror movies to non-Hollywood films like Besson's Léon: The Professional and John Woo' s A Better Tomorrow series.

Sakamoto loves making people laugh, and he began to see a connection between the dark films he admires and his penchant for comedy. "I'm not a comedian, but I enjoy helping people have a good time. I"m actually quite meticulous about it." 

Reflecting on personal experiences and discoveries - which he has recorded for many years in a journal - Sakamoto realized that, for him, the line separating comedy from horror is quite thin, and both rely on the same core elements: mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast. Tomodachi Collection, which Sakamoto describes as more comedically subversive than people credit it, is the outcome of this personal exploration.

Regardless of whether he's working on a Metroid or a WarioWare game, Sakamoto's creative process is essentially the same for each. "As long as one is open to the possibility of new expriences, you can move people in a variety of ways."

"My spirit has been moved by interactions with the world. These experiences create indivisual images that stay with us. It's our mission to give our images shapes that can be conveyed to other people. I had to find my own way at Nintendo. Similar to the way a child is given a new toy and becomes engrossed in it." 

Sakamoto found his own way, and through that process came to better know himself. His account of that journey may or may not inspire other designers, but I found it captivating.

What color is your hero?

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GDC provides a face-to-face environment for "the video game conversation." The incredible breadth of that conversation is one of main attractions of the conference, and it's a big reason I enjoy attending. If you hang around in the hallway between sessions, you're likely to hear a dissection of task-based multithreading in one ear and a heated debate on the merits of trophies and achievements in the other. It's dizzying, enlightening, and overwhelming all at once.

One conversation found its way to GDC '10, having already percolated in the blogosphere and elsewhere for years. Jamin Brophy-Warren broached it last year in a "Game Critics Rant" session when he called for more diversity in games (following Heather Chaplin's rant aimed at developers mired in "guy culture"). Warren revisited and expanded the topic this year by hosting a panel discussion called "What Color is Your Hero?" featuring Manveer Heir (Raven Software), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra), and Mia Consalvo (MIT).

Consalvo led off with some startling data on depictions of characters in games. 150 games released in '05-'06, across platforms and genres, were studied to record the appearance of every character seen by a player. A total of 8,572 characters were coded, out of which only 10.45% were female. White characters accounted for 85% of the primary characters appearing in those games. Not a single Hispanic or Native American character played a primary role in any of the games studied. Black characters depicted were overwhelmingly athletes and gang bangers.

Consalvo also cited research on children suggesting that characters represented in media play an important role in the construction of self-image and images of others. Additional research indicates that exposures to stereotypes negatively impact how kids perceive minorities.

Manveer Heir stressed that the issue isn't about political correctness. "It's about creating new experiences for players." Depicting characters from a wide ethnic and racial spectrum adds value to the player's experience. "The white male power fantasy is played out," he observed. Game developers are always looking for something new and different for their games, but they routinely miss an opportunity staring them in the face.

Leigh Alexander noted that the industry has relied on fitness, casual, and Facebook games to attract new players, but shouldn't limit its focus there. "We are not homogenous, so why should our games be?" Consalvo added that a higher percentage of African Americans play video games than do Caucasions. Issues of race and ethnicity aside, "a lot of us are tired of spaceships, dragons, and military situations," Alexander observed.

Part of the problem stems from a lack of diversity in the industry, whose employment demographics mirror those of its on-screen characters. "We don't have enough people in the industry representing a variety of walks of life," Heir stated. "Broadly speaking, we tell our own stories. We write what we know. He stressed the need for outreach programs that encourage minority students to enter the industry. "The insularity of this industry is our single biggest problem. If, in 10 years, we're the same as we are now, we're fucked."

Consalvo argued that hiring minority developers is a good idea, but we shouldn't assume artists can't also write outside their own experience. "It's ludicrous to think men can't write about women." The arts have demonstrated otherwise for centuries. "Don't get trapped by 'write what you know.'" Heir agreed. "The people working in this industry are some of the smartest people in the world. We can do this. It's not harder to solve than other complex problems we've faced and overcome."

Alexander noted that Resident Evil 5 had a chilling effect on some developers. "People are afraid of doing it wrong and getting the backlash." Developers face a major economic incentive to avoid risk, so they stick to what works. Ironically, Alexander added, many of these source materials draw from fantasy and sci-fi genres that metaphorically targeted race and other social issues far more ambitiously than their video game descendents today. 

Brophy-Warren wondered why the industry seems willing "to leave so much money on the table." Why is there no Tyler Perry or Spike Lee capitalizing on an opportunity to reach an audience that's already there? Why, he asked, in a game like Heavy Rain - set in Philadelphia with a 50% black population - are the only two characters of color "Mad Jack" and a kindly old groundskeeper? It's a glaring and nonsensical disconnect.

Heir cited Prey as an example of a game that tried to do better, featuring a Native American hero and telling a story that reflected on his identity. "It took another step and added a 'spirit-walking' mechanic that could have simply been re-skinned from other games, but used it in a way that suited the narrative." The hero was conflicted about his heritage, and the game addressed that in ways that felt more than superficial.

Alexander recalled growing up with a half-black father and Jewish mother and experiencing "a profound sense of alienation." "Your story matters," she asserted. "It's part of you." Games miss these storytelling opportunities. "Palette swaps aren't the answer. It's not just about visuals." Mass Effect enables player choice of sex and visuals, and this is a good thing; but it's not enough. Dragon Age plays with issues of prejudice in its depiction of Elves, and this also useful. But games should also be willing to address thorny issues head-on, without couching them in 'safer' fantasy and sci-fi settings.

Brophy-Warren contends the problem is more complicated than many of us realize. He cited the cartoonist Kyle Baker, who has lamented the difficulty of drawing black characters. "The stereotype trap is huge," and it can intimidate artists who want to depict minority characters without resorting to offensive visual tropes. "Why are there no black Little Sisters in Bioshock?" he asked. Is it a visual design issue of not being able to see them clearly in dark environments?

Heir countered that the problem wasn't technical, suggesting that "they wouldn't be as cute." You need to create empathy, and you need to do it fast. Alexander wondered if mistreating minority characters might be seen as crossing a certain line. Would Bioshock be considered offensive if it made little black girls victims? Consalvo added that the image of a sympathetic white on-screen character is a structural issue that dates back to Hollywood cinematography, which was designed to light white actors' faces. 

Heir noted that the video game industry faces structural issues of its own. "Gender creates a huge asset pipeline nightmare. Switching race is much easier than building new features and animations." Resistance to incorporating more female characters can sometimes be about resource allocation. Consalvo added that indie developers face far fewer constraints in this regard than big studios, "but they're not doing any better." This, according to Consalvo, suggests the absence of diversity in games is less about resources and more about unexamined self-imposed constraints.

Alexander cautioned that the conversation about characters and storytelling in games doesn't appeal to everyone in the industry. "When we play games, we want to talk about what they mean and the experience we derive from them." But many developers are "dubious about the value of 'story'" and prefer to focus purely on game design. "We don't really have these designers' attention when we discuss diversity in games."

"We say 'try something new,' but developers say 'why should we?'" Alexander cited Dora the Explorer as an enormously successful example of a character with broad pop culture appeal. "There is a massive audience outside your field of vision," Alexander observed. "Why be insular in a medium that's interactive?"

Heir agreed. "We can't listen to focus testers or we'll keep making the same game over and over. Consumers want more of the same because they don't know any better. It's our job to give them what they don't yet know they want. Trust yourself as an artist and designer."

Dial me up some emotion

Composer1-lg I walked into a GDC panel discussion called "The Musical Recipe of Emotion" with some trepidation. Video game music often strikes me as derivative, paint-by-numbers composition. Fanfare with horns equals victory; tremolo strings equal fear; slow tempo in minor key equals sadness. Etc.

So I was pleasantly surprised - thrilled, actually - to hear four gifted composers discuss their process for scoring games and their strategies for avoiding an 'emotion template' approach to composition. 

Tom Salta (GRAW, Red Steel) hosted a fascinating discussion with Laura Karpman (Untold Legends, Everquest), Marty O'Donnell (Halo series), Paul Lipson (Pyramid Producion - Bioshock 2Iron Man 2), and Chance Thomas (Avatar game, Lord of the Rings Online), focused on creating music that deliberately evokes emotion.

Salta outlined the paradox that every composer faces. Music is a language we understand. It conveys meaning through melody, textures, arrangement, and harmony, and we translate certain combinations of those elements in specific ways (e.g. screeching strings equal 'danger'). How can a composer use this common language without sinking into formula or cliche?

Salta tries to mix or morph familiar musical tropes in ways that alter or enrich their meaning. Juxtaposing a flavor of music with a situation that would seem contradictory can have a powerful effect, and he cited Quentin Tarantino's penchant for doing this in his films as inspirational. Salta played a sequence he composed for H.A.W.X in which he rearranged a familiar fanfare to suggest a more ambiguous Pyrrhic victory. "The notes are the words we understand, but the feeling they convey is delivered through an unorthodox arrangement that counters what the words seem to say."

Laura Karpman candidly noted that she sometimes feels responsible for elevating pedestrian, and sometimes just plain awful, visual material into something that feels genuine and expressive. She showed a sequence of shots from the TV miniseries Taken featuring actors who were obviously extras, painfully lacking even rudimentary acting skills. Without her score supporting them, the scene was laughably bad; but with music added - strings playing appogglaturas; bold brass ala Boris Gudunov; woodwind filigrees and a slowly building bass - the scene succeeded. Not quite a silk purse, but close enough to be respectable.

This thread wound its way through each of the presentations. The material these composers support with their music is often paper thin, and they frequently lack a real sense of the whole project. Cue sheets that ask for "fear", "triumph", or other general emotions arrive with little context, and the composer rarely has a chance to play the game in advance or even see whole portions of it. Top-line composers like Marty McDonnell may be invited into the design process from the early stages, but this is hardly typical. McDonnell designs all the audio in the Halo games, not just the music, so his creative presence at the drawing board is natural. Few composers for games play that role.

I'm drawn to artists willing to lift the hood and show you their process, and these composers did just that. Chance Thomas took us through his compositional ideas for scoring a chaotic dogfight in Avatar. 16th against 8th triplets establish a rhythm with minor tonalities, major flourishes, key changes, and passing chords conveying a sense of off-balance speed and unpredictable action.

Paul Lipson explained his approach to conveying "tremolo-free fear" via banging, uneven rhythms, stacked staccato horns, high sustained stings and harmonics, layered textures, and antiphonal melodies - with a tiny hint of woodwinds to suggest a glimmer of hope from the hero's POV.

O'Donnell discussed his surprisingly effective (and subversive, in my view) fusion of dark, brooding film noir-esque music for Halo: ODST. Simple jazz harmonies and slow tempos were intended to evoke a "This is not the Halo I'm used to" response from players. Interestingly, he even suggests a bit of sexual tension via blues piano riffs in the locker room-style scene among the soldiers early in the game. O'Donnell isn't sure if players are aware of this subtle bit of musical commentary, and that's perfectly fine with him.

Finally, Karpman suggested that artists who score games think more in terms of composers than emotions. She encouraged her peers to expand their awareness beyond "film music." Benjamin Britten, Rachmaninoff, Strauss - they all have huge range. "Learn from them. Then differentiate. Re-orchestrate." We all have similar frames of references, she noted. Expanding that frame is "hugely important" because it expands our vocabulary and makes us more versatile composers.

I brake for GDC

GDCbug_2010_200x200 I'm taking a few days off to catch my breath and steel myself for the sublime madness of GDC. I'll be posting from the event, hoping to bring you stories that won't replicate all the fine coverage you'll find elsewhere.

It's impossible to attend all the sessions I'm curious about, so I'm building a schedule that allows me to take in as many as I can, while still leaving time to explore and chat with people I meet. If you plan to attend, look me up. I'll be the older guy with the curly hair and the wide-eyed goofy look on his face. 

Stay tuned for more on GDC '10. I hope you enjoy.

Help fly Ben to GDC


Many of you who frequent my blog know Ben Abraham. He's been a regular reader and commenter here from the beginning, and he's a familiar presence on many other game blogs. Earlier this year he founded Critical Distance in an effort to highlight some of the best writing about games from all corners of the 'net. It's an impossible task, of course, but Ben's devotion to the project and his efforts to build an inclusive aggregation site are commendable.

Ben lives in Australia where he's pursuing a Ph.D. and working toward a career in game criticism. In other words, he's crazy. So crazy, in fact, that he's decided not to let anything stop him, including his particular limited circumstances and the fact that nobody's quite sure if game criticism exists as a field of study.

My friend David Carlton and I are apparently crazy too because we've decided Ben needs to attend the upcoming Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. We're drafting him to serve as a roving reporter and generally soak up as much of the event as possible. I cover GDC each year, and it's easily the most important annual event for those of us who follow the creative side of the industry. Ben needs to be there, and we intend to help make it happen.

Gamasutra, which syndicates Critical Distance, is graciously providing a GDC 2010 all-access entry pass for Ben. So that's one big expense out of the way. David and I are working together to take care of lodging, so that leaves one more hurdle to overcome: intercontinental plane fare. And this is where I'm asking for your help.

If you'd like to support Ben and help us get him to GDC, I hope you'll consider clicking on the widget in the upper right corner of this page and contributing a few bucks. Any amount is helpful. All the money we collect will go directly to Ben’s travel expenses (except for PayPal's credit card processing fees). If you'd like to help publicize our effort by sharing this widget on your blog, just click on the ‘Copy’ tab.

Thanks in advance for your help.

Note: The ChipIn widget can be slow to update, so if you contribute but don't see it reflected immediately in the total, don't worry. It will appear soon.

Brainy Gamer Podcast: post-GDC edition


This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features a 2-volume post-GDC extravaganza of Gamers Confab goodness. Join me and my guests as we discuss what we learned at this year's Game Developer's Conference.

Volume 1:   

Segment 1: N'Gai Croal, game design consultant at newly-formed Hit Detection and former games and technology journalist at Newsweek; and Manveer Heir, designer at Raven Software and author of Design Rampage.

Segment 2: Corvus Elrod of Man Bytes Blog; and Chris Dahlen of Save the Robot.

Download Volume 1 directly here.

Volume 2:

Segment 1: Leigh Alexander, news director at Gamasutra and author of Sexy Videogameland; Nels Anderson, gameplay programmer at Hothead Games and author of Above 49; and David Carlton of Malvasia Bianca.

Segment 2: Ben Fritz of The Cut Scene; Wes Erdelack (aka Iroquois Pliskin) of Versus Clu Clu Land; and Duncan Fyfe of Hit Self-Destruct.

Download Volume 2 directly here.

Both volumes are available via iTunes here.
You can subscribe to my podcast feed here.