[What were the overarching lessons of this year's Game Developers Conference? Gamasutra's Chris Remo examines the top five, spanning from player expression to 'games as a social force'.]
More than just a practical source of shared development knowledge, the Game Developers Conference also serves as a barometer of trends involving game design, the business side of the industry, and the community surrounding it.
Sometimes, GDC reflects ongoing, growing trends; sometimes, the seeds of a new one will be planted by a convergence of inspiring design lectures; sometimes, the far-reaching ideas discussed in the halls presage developments to come.
Here are just a few of the increasingly relevant trends that dominated discourse in and around the Moscone Center this year.
The Importance Of Player Expression
Games are inherently interactive, but there is a broad range of design attitudes as to how much self-expressive interaction is necessary or desirable -- simultaneously, rollercoaster-like on-rails adventures and open-ended sandbox experiences are equally capable of topping the charts and garnering critical acclaim.
But there is no denying that at this year's GDC, much attention was paid to allowing players to set their own goals, customize their own content, and make their own fun.
The title with the most wins at this year's Game Developers Choice Awards was Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet
, which relies a great deal on its players' willingness to invest themselves into its creation tools, and Game of the Year went to Bethesda Softworks' Fallout 3
, which features a vast open world, a customizable character, and plenty of opportunity for players to prioritize exploration and experimentation over set goal completion.
Noby Noby Boy
, the latest game by Katamari Damacy
designer Keita Takahashi, almost completely eschews the notions of goals at all, preferring to simply provide its players with various landscapes ripe for play. "I wanted to create a game where I didn’t need to worry about boundaries," said Takahashi during a session. "I wanted to throw that out and start from scratch, from the beginning of what games should be."
In a wide-ranging talk, veteran developer Chris Hecker discussed many different avenues of user-created content, drawing heavily on his experiences at Maxis with Spore
, and showcasing some of the remarkably inventive creatures that users designed with the game.
At one point, he argued that the traditional "one-percent rule," which suggests only one percent of users fall into the "creator" archetype, is a fallacy. Research indicates that proportion is higher, he argues, which has important implications for game developers.
But furthermore, "user-generated" means a lot more than how the phrase is typically used, he says. After all, the nature of video games is expressive -- "a three-second arc in Quake
has more meaning than a full game of Myst
The action shooter segment is not the first genre that comes to mind when discussing expressive gameplay. Still, in a revealing design session, Ubisoft Montreal creative director Clint Hocking described how Far Cry 2
changed during development from a highly "intentional" game -- that is, allowing players to execute precisely on intricately-conceived in-game plans -- to a more "improvisational" one in which players more rapidly bounce back between plan and execution.
But both sides of that spectrum rely heavily on players taking the initiative in expressing their own moment-to-moment goals beyond the more straightforward necessity of checking off missions on the way to the end.
Broadly, Hocking argued for less focus on demanding players achieve "mastery" by way of overcoming abuse, and more focus on encouraging expressive improvisation by way of interlocking systems fostering creativity and confidence. As Hocking summed up, "We need to nurture players when they are trying to express themselves... Let's invite them in, and let them play."
The Increasing Focus On Download
Just as how player self-expression contrasts with concrete, authored content, so too does the growing world of digital delivery contrast with the more traditional, permanent model of optical media and brick-and-mortar retail.
On the consoles, the services Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare have become more and more attractive to large, established developers and publishers who in the past have stuck with better-understood, longstanding, physical sales models. Even Nintendo, which has not embraced digital delivery to the same extent as its console competitors, is putting more investment in the area with its download-capable DSi portable system.
And while the always-connected PC has long been home to various types of digital delivery, services like Steam, Impulse, and Games for Windows Live have become engaged in an ever-hotter war for gamers' desktops and microtransaction dollars.
(Case in point: my inbox, which during GDC week was stocked with fresh press releases from all three services extolling their latest and greatest upgrades and services.)
Just look to the Game Developers Choice Award for "Best Downloadable Game" -- it is only in its second year of existence, but its necessity is obvious. This year, it went to 2D Boy's World of Goo
, which since its release has received equal critical analysis alongside its retail cousins.
But even this nascent segment is already being disrupted. OnLive
, announced during GDC, promises to provide a gaming experience so native to the internet that it even discards downloading, by providing a high-end gaming experience that relies on cloud processing to deliver entirely-streamed content on the fly.
All throughout the conference, attendees were reacting to the OnLive
announcement (in equal measure considering its future potential as well as wondering whether it will actually do what it says on the box). During an invitation-only lunch event, Will Wright and Warren Spector debated its implications. "How could it not change the way you do business?" Spector asked. "It would completely change the way you design your game."
The Blurring Of Indie And Mainstream
Going nearly hand in hand with the growing influence of digital delivery is the blurring of the lines between experimental games, independent games, and mainstream games.
Exhibit A: this year's Game Developers Choice winners and nominees -- the list was littered with current and past winners and nominees of Independent Games Festival awards, including Braid
, World of Goo
, Castle Crashers
, PixelJunk Eden
, and N+
The new avenues for putting games into players' hands mean that indie developers can angle for the same type -- and in some cases, even volume -- of attention paid to bigger-budget games by consumers and the press, and by extension the industry itself. And with smaller teams and budgets, they can afford to be more agile and reflective of current design trends.
But it's not just an awareness of current design trends; indie games are having more and more design influence themselves. During the above-mentioned lunch panel, Warren Spector and Will Wright observed that indie developers are exploring design avenues that are nearly impossible for older designers to have conceived, because younger indies are building on a lifelong fluency.
"It’s like we developed this language we had to learn as non-native speakers," said Wright of his generation of designers. "They grew up with that language."
"They're almost like commentary on the games that have come before," Spector offered.
Games As A Social Force
At every GDC, and for the 51 weeks in between, there is neverending talk of games as art: Are they art? Can they be? What makes a game art? What makes anything art?
But as games become more widespread, and as developers create types of games that continually expand the reach of the medium beyond the traditional understanding of what "video games" are, other tangential discussions are raised -- for example, can games effect social change? Can they be truly social at all?
By virtue of their interactivity, games have the potential to show consequences for actions in a way other forms of entertainment do not, which opens up the potential for meaningful messages. They also allow for increasingly deep long-distance communication, which may not effect social change, but does provide new types of social interaction.
"One of the most emotionally powerful games I’ve ever played was when I first started playing Black & White
," recalled Will Wright in a panel alongside Bing Gordon, Lorne Lanning, and Black & White
's designer Peter Molyneux. "Just for the hell of it, I was just harassing the hell out of these characters, and they were crying and bruised, and I actually felt guilty. I never felt guilty watching TV, or a movie.”
In the same Keita Takahashi talk mentioned earlier, the designer referred back to his previous title, Katamari Damacy
. "I wanted to show an ironic point of view about the consumption-based society," he explained of the ball-rolling, object-collecting game. "I wanted to make more objects -- if it were empty, I would feel empty or lonely."
Said Wright during a separate panel, "We can make games about the real world that are interesting, surprising. We can make games out of everyday life." The designer also commented positively on the increasing trend of asynchronous games on Facebook and other social networking sites, which broaden the reach of games even further and provide more avenues for people to interact with games and each other.
The iPhone Transcends Mobile
Mobile gaming has had a tough life. Once heralded as the next big thing, it saw considerable investment from just about every established major industry player, as well as new ones. And while, certainly, it returned some big successes, it also frustrated developers with its lack of standards, wildly differing hardware capabilities, and poor framework for commerce.
Enter Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch, which have addressed these grievances with a single unified development environment, competent technical specs, and the ridiculously user-friendly (and money-coaxing) App Store.
Studios which had either abandoned mobile development or never bothered to touch it in the first place are now jumping onboard, and the single-platform nature means individual developers are able to get a handle on the system without prohibitively vast porting concerns.
Following id Software's GDC week release of Wolfenstein 3D
on iPhone, id CEO Todd Hollenshead told Gamasutra that programming legend John Carmack has been enjoying the ability to do one-man development on the device -- and has plans for much more.
Essentially, the young device has already gained the stature of not just one branch of mobile gaming, but as a platform in its own right.
Electronic Arts veteran Neil Young co-founded iPhone-exclusive publisher ngmoco, which has already seen success with titles like Rolando
. He called the iPhone an "all-encompassing, complete device" that will "enable incredible things for gaming" -- including creating brand new game developers attracted to the ease of development on the platform.
"The iPhone has revolutionized everything," Young declared.
[Game Developers Conference is run by Think Services, which also operates Gamasutra. Our full GDC 2009 editorial coverage is still available to read.]