In an intriguing and wide-ranging Independent Games Summit keynote, ThatGameCompany's Kellee Santiago (Flow), Queasy Games' Jon Mak (Everyday Shooter), and cult mod maker/previous IGF finalist Pekko Koskinen took three short individual presentations to showcase in-depth concepts on independent game design.
They started out by suggesting of games: "We noticed in a lot of media that... a lot of discussion was very surface level.... we think that discussion can go a lot deeper."
Flow and Intrinsic Rewards
ThatGameCompany's Santiago started things out discussing exactly "how we evaluate games" in today's market - particularly focusing on reward system. She particularly noted: "Even though I make hippie games... rewards... are essential for creating interactive game experiences."
She referenced Steven Spielberg's Director's Chair, a relatively obscure CD-ROM title from the '90s, in which you make a movie starring Quentin Tarantino and Jennifer Aniston, choosing camera angles, managing wardrobe issues, and other elements. And in fact, she argued for the intrinsic rewards of such games: "The reward of the game... is purely through making a movie itself."
She then noted that growing and evolving was an important intended intrinsic reward system in ThatGameCompany's acclaimed PlayStation 3 title Flow, but some people didn't really understand those systems, leading to somewhat of an "is that all there is?" feeling.
She noted: "Possibly we didn't push it enough - there's still this linear progression from level to level and creature to creature." Nonetheless, these abstracted intrinsic rewards have majorly shaped ThatGameCompany's ethos.
Everyday Shooter and Visual Feedback
Next up was Jon Mak, who explained how much visual output matters in making the game fun - over and beyond the basic gameplay mechanics. He gave one particular example: "The gameplay in Guitar Hero sucks... but the game is good because it says 'if you push that button, it'll play rock music'." In other words, the output 'makes' the game. In fact, he suggested: "Gameplay isn't just about rules, it's about this kinda feedback thing."
Mak then showed a PC prototype of Everyday Shooter with basic placeholder graphics, suggesting that in itself that wasn't that fun - before showing it with the final game's art, and noting it just 'felt' more fun even though the game was essentially the same.
He then brought up a simple custom-coded test with "Mario jumping style physics" with a small blob on screen. But after coding these basic physics, he started mapping elements to output - so when the shape jumps and lands it will squish, and a small propeller on the top swivels around when it moves left and right.
He took this point further, concluding: "The game Rez itself... the expression is all in how it presents the visuals and audio" - whereas the gameplay itself is quite basic.
Pesko Koskinen and Games For All Mediums
In his talk Koskinen, pointed out that other forms of expression are rooted in one media, such as music (audio) and film (visual), but added that in terms of where games reside: "Games are essentially systems". He pointed out that chess is a good example of developing a system in your head, which you don't even need a chess board for in order to play it. But this trait is present in all games.
He pointed out that game systems "ultimately reside and function in the player", and everything displayed onscreen is ultimately to learn what you must create in your head in terms of tactics, reactions, and so on.
He then cheekily suggested: "Can we think of game design as the art of making fictional behavior?" In fact, Koskinen continued: "Can we design a player, in the same way we design a game." Could we make the player the product of the game? Koskinen thinks so.
In the brief final Q&A, the three discussed the difference between retail and downloadable content in terms of value to the consumer, with Santiago answering that downloadable content helped make the value proposition be purer, in some ways, by "...removing that baseline cost and let the content be the value."
Overall, the abstract but heartfelt and important talk by some of independent gaming's heavyweights was a good introduction to two days of independent content.