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GDC: Schell, Robertson, Pinckard discuss Subversive Design Issues

GDC: Schell, Robertson, Pinckard discuss Subversive Design Issues

March 12, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 12, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield
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More: Console/PC, GDC



The GDC’s popular Microtalks session allows 10 game industry people to discuss a topic of their choice for 5 minutes. We present here the highlights of three of those talks, from Foundation 9’s Jane Pinckard, writer and consultant Margaret Robertson, and Jesse Schell, instructor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon.

Jane Pinckard

Pinckard decided to tackle the subject of romantic love in games. “When we design software we’ve got really good about asking the question ‘what does the player do?’ and now we’re starting to ask the question ‘how do they want to feel?’” she said.

Emotions, like love, originate from the limbic system in the brain. Games are good at stimulating the neo cortex for thinking, and the brain stem for fight or flight reactions, but we’re only recently starting to get into the limbic system now, she said. “I don’t think we’ve been entirely unsuccessful,” Pinckard admitted. “The entire game of Final Fantasy 8 was in service of the narrative of love as its core.”

She also posed the idea of love as nurturing, with Nintendogs, whereas in KOTOR, “I feel like I’m just discovering a love story rather than making one happen.”

You can’t just allow for romantic encounters, you have to make the potential partners appealing. “It didn’t work for me in Fable II because all the partners felt really disposable,” she said, “because there was nobody really unique”

With Dragon Age there’s so much content that it feels more natural. With the Alistair romance scenario, she actually felt tingles, thinking, “Does he like me? Is he going to kiss me?”

Her suggestions for how to make this work included the character making you laugh, getting into adrenaline-pumping situations with them, having them put themselves ahead of you in battle or in some other way, and to build in moments of vulnerability, which enhances your bond with them.

“I really don’t care about the Citizen Kane of games,” she said. “I want the Pride and Prejudice of games!”

Margaret Robertson

Robertson began by saying she was working on a game called Papa Sangre for iPhone, set in a Mexican Day of the Dead underworld. “One thing is we can’t figure out what people can pay for this thing,” she said. She had distributed flyers on the seats of some attendees, and asked that the audience study them for a moment.

She then polled the audience on what they would pay through a show of hands, beginning with $1.99, and ending up at $4.99. “A few more over there would pay $4.99 than would have over there,” she noted, gesturing to different ends of the conference space. “It happened because I knew it would happen. I mind controlled you,” she said. “I behavioral economics-ed you.”

Robertson had fixed the odds by distributing different flyers to each side of the room – one showd a release date of July 28, and the other had a release date of April 2. The higher number made people more comfortable to go with the higher price, she posed.

“These guys are game designers, constantly making great games,” she said, noting that these techniques are very applicable to games. For example, if there are three doors available, you have a choice to click on one, and you will just choose based on what you like. But if they start to disappear, players will click on them before they disappear just to make sure it doesn’t go away, even if it’s not the best choice.

“We can pull all these ideas out of behavioral economics and pull them into the design of our games,” she said. “As well as a difficulty curve, we should also have a curiosity curve. You guys in this room do what I just did all the time, and don’t be afraid of it.”

Jesse Schell

Schell has really come into his own recently, with provocative commentary at conferences and an increasing presence in the academic field. The harmonica-toting professor gave a talk at DICE about the interconnections between games and real life, which many people reacted strongly to.

He posed that life is a series of small achievements, and that we’re going through a gradual achievementization of society, and over-integration of technology and corporate branding. People reacted to his talk saying, “Oh my god it’s 1984, but it’s really not 1984,” he countered. “It’s ‘Brave New World’ by Huxleyan.”

“This stuff’s already creeping into our lives, and it’s not going to stop!” he said. “They say people aren’t going to stand for it, they’re going to rebel! I say no, they are going to stand for it!”

Did you rebel when they started branding television content with logos, he asked? Or upped the length of commercials in programs? “Did you rebel when Shea Stadium became Citibank Stadium?” Some in the audience responded with loud “yeses.” “And if you did rebel, it didn’t do a damn bit of good!” said Schell.

Game designers as a whole fall into 4 camps, he said. There are the persuasives, who just care about money, the fulfillers, who ask “how do I fulfill the wishes and dreams of my players?” Then there are the artists - they don’t care about how it sells, they just want it to be beautiful and different. Lastly are the humanitarians – “these guys care about using the incredible power of games to improve our lives, our bodies, and our souls.”

So who’s going to win? As they say, the guy with the gold makes the rules. “You might think you’re one of these [referring to the more altruistic groups], but you might be a puppet for one of the other sides. It’s so easy for that to happen!”

“I think it is possible to do an end run on these guys,” he said, referring to the persuasives. “But we can’t do it with our eyes closed. We can only do it if we wake the hell up. The only choice we have is to focus on this and to think about what’s coming. I said a war’s coming, but that’s not really true. The war’s already here, and you’re fighting it right now. So please, figure out what side you’re on, because if you don’t, someone else is going to do it for you.”


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