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Postcard from GDC Europe 2005: Game Design Mash-Up

September 1, 2005
 

Following in the footsteps of the now recognized highlight of GDC, the game design challenge, host Robin Hunicke explained that the GDCE version of it was going to be more of a remix – a twist on the usual theme. The goal was the same, to approach a hard design problem from a new perspective – and with an important sense of humor still intact.

The theme for the Game Design Mash-up was particularly apt in a development age highly concerned with diversity – devise a game for Granny. Robin laid down the rules of engagement and asked some important first questions: the audience is mainstream, casual, female and gray. How do we reach them? Who is your Grandma? What would she play?

The panel assembled for the event were drawn from a wider variety of game design backgrounds. Demis Hassabis, currently spending a year studying cognitive neuroscience was first to address the challenge. He explained he was going to explain his process, look at the concepts he rejected and then present the idea he had selected. His initial question, "What do Grannies like?"

After apologizing for any stereotyping, he proceeded to generalize at an entertaining pace. Grannies, Demis surmised, like knitting, reading, gardening, reminiscing, telling stories, playing bridge, grandchildren and gossiping. The full-house audience murmured an amused recognition at the selections. He went on to point out that complex controls would be unacceptable and that gratuitous violence, sex or profanity would also be a problem. What is clear is that it should be is social, friendly and in a familiar setting.


"What do Grannies like?"

Demis then presented the ideas he had rejected. He dismissed the Hobby Simulation, real-time knitting guide and landscape gardening program as being 'too obvious'. His 'War Story Constructor' was a fascinating proposition, using voice input to render the wartime memories of the player in the Half-Life 2 engine. Demis conceded however that this was, 'too fantastical' – although he did flag up the tantalizingly possibility of the constructed levels being released as maps for grandchildren to play; FPS-ing their way through Grandma's memory.

He settled on 'The Village', which he billed as the 'World's first MMO gossip simulator' – or at a pitch level, 'Shenmue meets Sims Online meets Eastenders'. A mission based environment invites players to enhance or decimate reputations of others as they see fit, with AI characters playing key roles within the world and stimulating mission content. To the delight of the audience Demis alluded to the possibility of the kids playing within a game-world that they might find entertaining, creating the kinds of GTA-esque content that Grandma might not be so excited about – but actually unwittingly participating in the Grandmothers game.

Nick James from Bizarre Creations had only had the train journey down to prepare and apologized that he wasn't actually going to pitch a game anyway. He began by answering a few questions. Firstly, he explained that being a Granny is, 'a bit like being drunk', having slower reaction times and poor hand to eye coordination. He went on to conclude that Granny is much like everyone else, in that she wants to be entertained, challenged and interact with like-minded people. He argued that Granny needs games that are relevant to her interests with relevant music and other cultural reference points, that the interface need to be much simpler with larger, bespoke controls. Finally he suggested that the gameplay ideas are actually already out there and what is needed isn't a revolution in gameplay, but in marketing.

He did venture an entertaining suggestion as to what a new 'granny game' might be, 'Ballroom Dancing Revolution' is at the right pace with relevant music but unfortunately requires a dance-mat the size of a gymnasium.

Finally Katamari Damacy designer Keita Takahashi took the podium. He introduced his presentation, "I thought really hard about this one, I haven't thought this hard since I was coming up with the idea for Katamari Damacy. I decided that I wanted to get old ladies playing games and bring a little of the sunshine that they end up losing when they stay indoors all the time back into their lives." The focus of his talk began with the controller, he explained that current hardware designs are inorganic and difficult to understand. He introduced the design of his new controller specifically tailored for the Granny, and a picture of a cat appeared on the screen to great amusement. He explained, "the shape of the cat and the heat waves that it gives out really gets the old ladies going as they get quite cold. They like the cat shape. The cat is designed to be rested on the old ladies knees." The cat controller was met with rapture from the audience as Takahashi went on to explain the gameplay concept.

The game would begin with the family suggesting to Granny that she wear the cat because, for example, her knees looked cold. Embedded in the cat is the capability for it to communicate wirelessly with other cat controllers (on other Grannies' knees) in the neighborhood. When the cat connects to another one, "..the onboard a.i. kicks in." This causes the cat to speak, paraphrased as "meow, meow, grandma, meow". Takahashi explains that the family are required to participate in the game by pretending that they haven't heard anything, because of this – Grandma begins to build the perception that she is able to communicate directly with the cat.

As the dialogue with the cat develops, it suggests that Granny make some soup – but faster than the other granny down the street who has also received the instruction. A competitive element emerges and gradually the cat suggests more and more group activities that Grandma might engage in, culminating in trips to the park. "..So they all go outside and eventually they meet other old ladies with cats and they all become friends. So it's a game that involves the participation and love of the entire family." Takahashi ended the presentation by commenting on the possible production path of the cat, "Namco and Bandai are merging so when I get home I will submit my proposal."

Following a vote-by-applause awarded Takahashi the first prize, questions were invited from the audience. One question in particular struck home, "Do any of you envisage playing games when you are older? If so, won't the problem just solve itself?"

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