Will Wright, the former champ bowed out from participating this year.
in its third year here at the Game Developers Conference, the annual
Game Design Challenge is already one of the highlights of the lecture
series. Like years previous, the contestants presented their ideas
before a packed house. Unlike year previous, one of those contestants
was not Will Wright.
explained host Eric Zimmerman of gameLab, insisted that he be able to
step quietly out of the challenge for this year rather than defend his
title, as he did successfully last year in a challenge involving
licensing Emily Dickinson's poetry. While Eric had little problem
granting that request, he couldn't let Will be totally out of the
limelight during this year's challenge: the sight of Will being crowned
with a shiny tiara garnered roars of applause from the appreciative
year, three new contestants had a shot to take the tiara away from
Will. First was Harvey Smith, Studio Creative Director at Midway, most
famous for his work in the Deus Ex and Thief series of games. Next was Cliff Bleszinski, Lead Designer at Epic Games who continues to work on the Unreal series. Third was Keita Takahashi of Namco, creator of the hit Katamari Damacy series.
Game Design Challenge that faced these designers was, like previous
years, spawned as a commentary to the current state of the game
industry. Issues of violence and emotional space in games led to the
first challenge: create a love story. Licensing activity and questions
created the second: what to do with the Emily Dickinson license. In
light of the Game Developers Conference's Serious Games track as well
as the recent formation of many serious games organizations and
gatherings, this year's challenge pushes game designers to create a
game that involves the Nobel Peace Prize in some way. The game need
not be designed explicitly to win the fabled prize; other valid
approaches include coercing players into winning the prize or creating
a game about the Nobel Peace Prize.
From left to right: Eric Zimmerman, Harvey Smith, Cliff Bleszinski, and Keita Takahashi.
the contest went underway, Eric noted the irony and relatedness of
Nobel's pacifist ways. Alfred Nobel is most noted for instituting the
Nobel Prizes as well as for inventing dynamite. Dynamite and the
explosive concoctions that followed afterward were chief among Nobel's
methods of attaining worldwide peace. His reasoning was that as
weapons become increasingly powerful, there would be a point at which
waging war would not be feasible to anyone in the world; with the
impossibility of war, the world will be at peace.
After anecdotes like this and a few playful verbal jabs between Eric and the contestants, the contest began with Harvey Smith.
began by talking about video games that changed society for the better
and noted happily that there are some excellent examples out there. He
described two particular ones that impressed him: Escape from Woomera (www.escapefromwoomera.org) which has the player attempt to flee from a refugee detention center in Australia and Beyond Manzanar (www.mission-base.com/manzanar)
which depicts the Manzanar Internment Camp in a virtual reality
installation. Both of these he found really moving and influential in
his design process.
process, however, seemed to come up with ideas that just wouldn't click
with him, and he shared these rejected ideas with the audience to much
thought and a good deal of laughter. Among the rejected ideas were: a
Subvert-the-Nobel game where the player works for an evil corporation
and must win the Nobel prize through nefarious means like killing Asian
Bird Flu carriers through the use of oil spills; a cute life-sim
critter that teaches kids healthy moral concepts for their daily lives;
Bono's Africa, a sort of inverse war game that has players ending chaos
in African countries through the One campaign.
he turned back to one of his earliest ideas and ran with it. He
quickly explained to the audience the concept of flash mobs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob) and presented his idea that used this as the core mechanic: Peace Bomb. Harvey conceived Peace Bomb
as a web-enhanced Nintendo DS title that had players creating social
networks not unlike those in place in conventional MMO games. The game
however isn't in the social networking so much as it is in the
constructive projects that it can engender. The game is designed to
spill into the real world by having flash mobs erupt out of the
wheeling and dealing that happens in the virtual space. The social
networking happens not just over TCP/IP, but also over a sort of
sneaknet, where people get together to do constructive projects on
the game would create many, many little and not-so-little project
groups all over the world that would plant, clean, or build
spontaneously. Peace Bomb could also leverage groups like
Habitat for Humanity to build its projects around. While Harvey didn't
talk much about the lower-level game dynamic, he noted that the game
would have to be incredibly fun to spread the way it should to create
the needed sneaknet infrastructure. With that size also comes meaning;
"I wanted a game that affords the player a sense of higher purpose," he
Bleszinski started off his presentation by looking at how he evaluated
himself as a game designer and looking at the types of projects that he
probably wouldn't be designing: distributed projects like Folding@home, Spore-like
behemoths, and nuclear proliferation sims. What he does do is shoot
from the hip and loves pop culture and war movies. He understood that
games are good at both teaching and engaging, and his design had an
interesting take on who to teach.
His game, Empathy,
has players play the role of a civilian patriarch of a family of five
in a nation that is on the brink of war and eventually thrown into
chaos. The goal of the game is to keep your family alive and intact,
while the goal of the design is to facilitate the perception of
"collateral damage" as human life. Throughout the game, the player
interacts with his family and tries to maintain a sense of normalcy in
the family's world. Also the player must leave the safety of home from
time to time in order to gather essentials like food and candles to
keep his family alive. You can finish the game by either surviving the
war or successfully escaping it with your family, or you can lose it by
dying, getting captured, or having a family member leave.
was the fact that this game would be targeted toward war combatants and
heads of industrialized nations. Everyone from local police to fighter
pilots would be required to play this game. Even the
commander-in-chief would be forced to play, under some sort of UN
resolution requiring mandatory play time. Imagine what it would be
life for state officials' score to be available for public scrutiny.
Takahashi was the last of the contestants, and he decided to compound
the game design challenge with a challenge of his own; his
highly-animated Powerpoint presentation began with the title card
changing "Game Design Challenge 2006" to "My English Challenge 2006"
much to the audience's enjoyment.
began by talking about how games already achieve peace; they do it by
creating love: a love for the games themselves. He presented many
pictures of people having fun costuming as characters from Katamari Damacy.
A video from Mega64 featuring a guy dressed as the game's Prince
character rolling a large ball around a neighborhood elicited cheers
from the audience. "I still believe we can become close to world peace
if everyone believes in love… The existence of games themselves leads
Keita Takahashi's vision of peace
the overwhelming amount of love for games that must be around, because
there are a lot of gamers out there, Keita still finds that it is only
among close circles of friends. We should strive to create games that
cross language and cultural borders. To not do so, "it is almost a
crime!" he says.
that in mind, however, Keita sees that there are still many people
around the world that are too busy dealing with the problems of life to
have fun with games. War, poverty, disease, and starvation must be
addressed before we can even begin to bring games to their worlds. "We
have to create [an] environment to play games!" Once we have that, we
can bring the games, TVs, generators, and cosplay costumes that Keita
sees as key to having love and peace.
the presentation, Keita had his unique art fill the Powerpoint
presentation, and the audience responded with laughter and applause.
At the end of his presentation, he said, "If we are going to the
trouble of spreading games around the world, we can't make games like
this." The last slide featured a group of his characters sitting down
saying things like "Boring" "Crappy" and "Cheesy."
Transfering the crown to the new champion.
an audience voting session consisting of Will and Eric making the
extremely close call of audience's cheering for the contestants' names,
the tiara went to Harvey Smith, who graciously accepted the award from
the previous champion. It was an entertaining session for everyone
involved, and many designers who were in attendance today are looking
forward to how Harvey will defend his title in next year's Game Design