As in past years, Wednesday's Experimental Gameplay session attracted a throng. Beyond standing-room only, the lecture hall was crowded enough to concern and irritate the local fire marshal. Ultimately, the session went on around fifteen minutes longer than expected – and even then, the presenters had more material than they were able to show.
Comprised as it was of enthusiastic young developers, eager to show off their new toys that (in several cases) nobody else is allowed to play with, the energy level was high, keeping the audience clapping and cheering when appropriate, and vocalizing when not.
For an opening act, Daniel Sussman and Eric Brosius from Harmonix blazed the trail and pleased the crowd with the first public demonstration of a much-rumored "freestyle" mode, cut from the final version of critical favorite Guitar Hero. The original premise of the mode was to allow users to do their own solos in the middle of established tracks. In testing, users were found impatient wading through the motions, waiting for their jamtime to begin – so instead the mode was altered to allow noodling over the entire length of a track.
MIDI guitar sounds were specially welded together with unique starts, stops, and transitions, to keep them from sounding too regular. When a user began to strum manically, a preprogrammed sequence of notes was triggered to make the performance sound halfway-decent. Similarly, anything off-tune was quickly bent to the nearest appropriate note. The whole idea was to make anything played sound as awesome as possible, no actual talent required.
Apparently, the reasons behind the mode's omission were both complex and kind of obvious in retrospect. The biggest problem is that, with the available sample memory and time allotted for adjustment, they just couldn't get it to sound as good as they wanted.
The other issues are more relative. For one, it was unclear how to fit the freestyle mode into an established design model; for another, it was hard to wrap the brain around how to teach the mode, with all its bizarre shortcuts, to players – especially those with no musical experience. All things considered, that problem seemed against the intent of Guitar Hero, which was to allow anyone the opportunity to sound like an expert without having to worry about the technical details.
As for the details, the mode offered all manner of special tricks; among other things, the user could use shortcuts to toggle between higher and lower keys, and could – in theory – hold the guitar vertically to trigger feedback. The idea there was to get the player to pose ridiculously, again to carry across the "rock star" feeling as much as possible. Unfortunately, the guitars at hand during the demonstration were not calibrated as well as they might have been. Following several unsuccessful attempts to show off the feedback feature, the Harmonix representative lifted the prop high into the air and swung it to the hall floor, like an axe, shattering it to pieces, eliciting nervous stares from his partners and deafening cheers from the audience.
With the spectacle out of the way, the more serious exploration began; first up was a demonstration of the design process behind a rhythm-based casual game by the name of Downbeat by Nick Fortugno and Peter Nicolai of GameLab. For clear reasons, beat-matching games are uncommon in the casual sector: they require a certain degree of skill, in an area where not everyone is proficient.
Beyond that, the whole theory behind casual games is to constantly reaffirm the player in her actions – especially early on. To contrast, most rhythm games are based around practicing a piece over and over, royally screwing up for ages, until eventually you're proficient enough to move on to a harder piece – which you then proceed to screw up again. So in a sense, the whole established (though not necessarily ideal) pattern of rhythm games is backward, from an accessibility standpoint.
The developers walked the audience through several experimental prototypes in an attempt to work out just what element made a rhythm game tick from a playability standpoint. They began with a grid littered with monsters, and a tempo meter at the bottom. The player was to navigate her way around the grid, touching the squares in a particular pattern while avoiding the monsters. It soon became obvious that, while hardcore players found the game kind of terrific, there were way too many variables for a casual gamer to keep track of – most of which were beside the point of it being a rhythm game.
The next model involved a sort of tile-based puzzle game with a Jenga-like stack of tiles that kept rising toward an event horizon toward the top of the screen. The player was to do something unspecified with the tiles before they hit the top of the screen, and in time with the music. The speaker breezed past the model without much explanation, stating that it simply wasn't any fun. For his next trick, he tried making the rhythm part of the gameboard rather than something the player had to keep track of manually. The screen depicted a web of circles that slowly pulsed in time with a dinky MIDI rendition of Devo's "Whip It". The player was to move the mouse around and click on the circles in order, as they reached their correct states. Not only was this model boring; it also failed to convey a feeling that the player was in any way "performing" or connected with the music.
Eventually, they showed a model involving four rough Saturday Night Fever-style dance floors, and an incoming sequence of colored dots that the player was to click on, to cause dancers to gravitate to the respective dance floors. Though this game was kind of clunky, tests showed that casual players at least could come to grips with it. He later revised the model so the player was to click directly on a series of incoming dancers who boogied in from the right side of the screen – removing an unnecessary level of abstraction, to both make the rules more clear and to make the player feel more connected to the underlying music. This model also allowed for combos and special bonuses, for advanced players. The result was a highly stylized yet also highly playable rhythm game.
The point of the whole exercise was to illustrate that, though casual games are known as a no-man's land of clones and retreads, there is plenty of experimental space available – and many of the obvious rules are plain rubbish to anyone with a little ingenuity and persistence. What is in fact most exciting about the casual game space is the completely blank slate that developers need to shoot for, in terms of an audience – which requires developers to constantly question what they know about game design.
To Mosh and to Jam
The next two segments covered a couple of recent high-profile independent game development competitions: the Dallas Game Jam and the Mobile Game Mosh, both of which were inspired by the Indie Game Jam.
The majority of the demonstrations discussed the logistics and pitfalls of structuring future competitions. Indeed, the first portion to the Dallas Jam segment was labeled "Rapid Prototyping Landmines: Why Our Approach Sucks". Compared to the Carnegie Melon and Indie Game Jam structures, where each contestant (or occasional small team) was assigned an individual project, the Dallas Jam attempted to get the entire group to work together on a single project. People being as people are, this approach resulted in chaos and failure more often than not; as illustrated in a series of slides, when everyone has his or her own project, chances are at the end of the show there will be several finished games to show – regardless of how many projects fail partway through. When you put all your eggs in one basket, though – especially one destabilized by too many cooks in the kitchen – well, you get what you get.
Following these four presentations, the session dispersed for a break. In the next segment, despite a thinning audience, the session really kicked into overdrive with a series of intriguing new theories and approaches to design. Read on for more on the second half of the Experimental Gameplay session.