How I Learned To Stop Complaining and Love Conventions

The last time I went to a Game Developers’ Conference, it was still called the Computer Game Developers’ Conference and was being held in Santa Clara. I haven’t attempted to figure out when that was exactly, but I’m guessing it was at least eight years ago.

It was always much too expensive to go — it still costs way, way too much, although I suppose that might contain the crowds and maintain the “tone” of the thing. Plus, it never seemed all that useful to me: I’ve always somehow managed to stumble into really cool jobs, so I don’t really need to “network.” And I remembered the sessions as being of questionable value, to put it tactfully. You’d get the occasional insightful one, but I can still remember sitting through an hour of a guy literally listing all the types of adventure game puzzles.

A lot’s changed since then, apparently. Since I genuinely love my job, I didn’t have to do any business-style networking, so I just got to run into a bunch of people I haven’t seen in years. And I went to two presentations, which ranged from “very good” to “excellent.” One was by Clint Hocking of Ubisoft, where he talked about the balance of improvisation vs. planned strategy in FarCry 2. (Check out Chris Remo’s detailed write-up of Hocking’s presentation on gamasutra.com, as well as descriptions of some of the other presentations. It’s definitely worth reading). The other was by Randy Smith of Tiger Style games, who talked about applying the principles of user interface design (of real-world objects, not Graphical User Interfaces) to improve puzzle readability.

The thing that struck me about both sessions, and the tone of the conference in general (what little I saw of it), was how much progress we’ve made in getting over one of the biggest problems in videogames eight years ago: the rigid division between genres. You can still see the legacy of it on review sites, where they divide games into strict RPG/FPS/RTS genres, and the people making and playing the games really did used to be that insular. But that’s going the way of “Replayability” and “Reviewer Tilt!” and decimal-point scores. You just can’t make good games these days unless you play a little bit of everything and learn from everything. Now, the focus is on good projects instead of artificial divisions. You’ll still see the negative aspect of that: me-too syndrome, where everyone wants to make the next World of Warcraft or Rock Band. But for the most part, it’s about being inspired to innovate and re-invent.

Hocking’s presentation in particular was about lessons learned from developing a strategic open-ended first-person shooter, but is useful for just about any objective-based game. He described — more coherently and with concrete examples — what I’d been trying to get at in regards to adventure games, in “Feedback’s a Bitch” and the second attempt “Feedback Loop”. I see these games only as a player, since I’ve never worked on a bigger-budget action title, and it’s reassuring to see the same kinds of design considerations recurring across all types of games.

Speaking of inspiration: it’s nice to see independent and experimental games getting so much attention. I wish I could’ve seen more of them, but I missed the presentations and only got to see glimpses on the expo floor, most of which I’d already seen. My friend Hanford got me into a party of indie developers at a bar in the city, but it wasn’t long before my old-man Sybil-like aversion to crowds made me leave. (It’s just as well, since everyone there was someone I knew of instead of actually knowing).

I did get to meet Steve Swink, Scott Anderson, one of the developers of Shadow Physics [mentioned about 2/3 of the way down the page], and see quick demo. [Sorry, Scott! I only got a first name and have a terrible memory, so I confused you with someone else!] It’s a great concept: you control the shadow of your avatar, and can only manipulate real-world objects by manipulating their shadows. There are games that experiment with the shift between 2D and 3D perspectives, but this is unique in that you can move light sources around to alter the world and open up solutions to puzzles. I’m really looking forward to getting to play this one.

The other most interesting game is The Unfinished Swan by Ian Dallas, who (among many other things) wrote for the “Ice Station Santa” and “Moai Better Blues” episodes of Sam & Max Season Two. It’s a great-looking concept in which you must reveal your surroundings by splattering paint on the walls. I only got to hear about this one third-hand via the internets, but the tech demo video is plenty impressive, and I’m told that the one shown during the experimental games presentation was even better.