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GDC 2011

Keep it Together: Encouraging Cooperative Behavior During Co-Op Play

Posted by , in Sessions, Design 03 March 2011 - * * * * - · 1,033 views

Patrick Redding, of Ubisoft Montreal, has formerly worked on Far Cry 2 (ie, best first-person game), previously directed the co-op component of Splinter Cell: Conviction. He is now the game director at the new Ubisoft Toronto studio. He started by making a distinction between player cooperation as opposed to systemic cooperation. He referenced a blog post entitled Tahrir: The Game, posing the hypothetical scenario about making a game dealing with non-violent revolutions. "There's a misunderstanding that [...] through the fabric of the twitterverse" that revolutions are somehow giving rise to these revolutions, but that's a fallacious thought. Revolutions start from within a country with people dealing in high-stakes, dangerous situations banding together and forming strong social bonds with one another.

"Players become invested in the success of a collaborative partners" because of that ongoing process of negotiation with other players. It converts selfish motives into those associated with the collective goal of the group.

Redding went on to talk about Minecraft and a server he played on with a bunch of friends -- but, on this server, he actually rarely sees any of his friends on this server. It's largely a server with people building things of their own will. A few weeks ago, he took a break from the game and "it wasn't really a hard break to take." He then signed on a few weeks later, though, and he opened the server and was greeted by these giant land masses and statues and in his absence his friends have created some amazing Inception-like cityscape. "Players respond very, very positively to this collective agency."

"Why do players cooperate?," Redding asked. "How do we achieve the conditions in which shared intentionality" arises in large, big-budget AAA games. Redding went on to discuss the lessons he learned in the co-op component of Splinter Cell: Conviction.

The first big lesson is that "players will work together to optimize system input." In the detection model for Splinter Cell: Conviction, "2x the players [does not equal] 2x the detections" since the players end up working together for their common cause, despite that this is theoretically very possible. The next lesson Redding and his team learned is that "Shared intentionality promotes individual self-expression." At the high-level, players developer strategies. At the mid-level, they create individual, lower scope plans. At the low-level, players make riskier choices in co-op than they do in single-player. And, in mastery, players in co-op are more willing to explore optional paths because they "know that they have a more reasonable chance of regrouping with their team and trying another approach if it doesn't work out."

"Players derive satisfaction from meaningful cooperation" and this meaningful cooperation results in players enjoying the game more. So much so, that players are much more willing to forgive flaws of the game than they are in single-player.

Redding then goes into formal design tools and starts looking for genre-agnostic design tools and tools that are systemic. He starts this discussion with "cooperative dynamics," using the same notion of dynamics as Clint Hocking talking about on Wednesday. "Dynamics are what deliver the final game experience." Redding lists some of the dynamics that they used in Splinter Cell: Conviction, such as "gating/tethering" (a very prescriptive dynamic), "'exotic challenges" ("altered camera/controls for some players"), "punitive systems" and "buffing systems," "assymetric abilities," "survival/attrition," and "combined actions." In explicating the "combined action" dynamic, Redding elaborated with a definition I really liked: "Any game challenge attacks a discrete set of player skills: precision, timing, measurement, management, tactical choice, strategy, puzzle-solving." Beyond this, the solution to the challenge is largely left to player choice.

Redding closed with some of the lessons that he and his team learned from their experience on Splinter Cell: Conviction.


Electric Elephants and Communism: Clint Hocking on How Games Mean

Posted by , in Design 03 March 2011 - - - - - - · 1,190 views

Clint Hocking gave a thought provoking and interesting talk -- complete with allusions to electric elephants, communism, and russian film icon Lev Kuleshov -- in an attempt to answer a question Chris Hecker raised during earlier GDC's. Specifically: How do games mean?

No that's not a grammatical error or a joke. It's a play on the question "what do games mean?"

There are many problems with the question "what do games mean?" The largest might be that we don't have a particularly good way to systematically answer it. The question of "how do games mean?" (or more gramatically: "how do games create meaning?") is more answerable, and more importantly, the answer is perhaps useful in creating games that are rich with meaning.

So how do games mean? I'll try to summarize Mr. Hocking's view here, although it's quite intricate. Mr. Hocking has an interesting answer to that question, but before getting to that, it might be instructive to look at the history of film.

Lev Kuleshov is an iconic figure in film. He's best known for discovering the Kuleshov Effect. From Wikipedia:

Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mozzhukhin was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl, a little girl's coffin). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mozzhukhin's face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was "looking at" the plate of soup, the girl, or the coffin, showing an expression of hunger, desire or grief respectively. Actually the footage of Mozzhukhin was the same shot repeated over and over again. Vsevolod Pudovkin (who later claimed to have been the co-creator of the experiment) described in 1929 how the audience "raved about the acting.... the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same."[1]

Kuleshov used the experiment to indicate the usefulness and effectiveness of film editing. The implication is that viewers brought their own emotional reactions to this sequence of images, and then moreover attributed those reactions to the actor, investing his impassive face with their own feelings.


Here's the important bit in all of that: through the creative use of editing, the audience can be brought to find meaning in something that is otherwise ambiguous. Ivan Mozzhukhin's face was the same in all shots, but by allowing the viewer to interpret his reactions, the editing created meaning that was otherwise non existent.

So what does that have to do with meaning? Well in Mr. Hocking's view, films create meaning through editing. Narrative might direct the experience, but editing is the basic building block -- the "how", if you will -- in which meaning is constructed from.

Well that's great for film, but how do games create meaning?

Dynamics, would be Mr. Hocking's answer.

Wait what are dynamics?

Dynamics are the behavior of the game itself, the way it interacts with you in response to your actions. This is where meaning is created. In this sense, cutscenes or stories wouldn't be the primary creators of meaning -- because they aren't part of the behavior of the game. They can frame and reinforce the meaning of the dynamics, but they aren't where meaning is created.

As background for where this "dynamics" term comes from, one model of thinking about game design is the "Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics" model. You can think of it this way:

Mechanics = Rules
Dynamics = Behaviors that arise from the rules
Aesthetics = Feelings that result from the players experiencing the behaviors

There's the "message model of meaning", in which mechanics overrule dynamics. You could think of this as a more authoritarian view of how you should view the game, in which the designer uses the rules of the game in order to enforce a specific message.

There's also the "abdication of authorship" model, in which dynamics overshadow mechanics. In this model, player agency is maximized, but the trade off is that with extended player agency, the designer's control over the experience is reduced.

Games can fall upon a spectrum in this sense, with some games reserving the creation of meaning for themselves, while other games allow the player more control over what the meaning of the game is.


The Failure Workshop

Posted by , in Sessions, Design 02 March 2011 - - - - - - · 1,410 views

Kyle Gabler opens the failure workshop with the story about a game entitled "Robot and the Cities That Built Him" which was to be a project based off of a seven day experimental gameplay project. "Because we're game developers, we started by making a bunch of different units," he said. "This is an indie game! The robots are not destructive, they're a metaphor."

"But that wasn't big enough," he said. Then the game became "Robot and the cities... the musical!" And it started with bunnies jumping through the forest singing "it's a fuzzy wuzzy day." And this is the best thing ever, I think. "Their fuzzy wuzzy skins peels off revealing cold metal beneath."

"...but it's still not fun," he said "and so we did what we should have done six months earlier" and they made a quick prototype with as little production effort as possible. And then they realized the game wasn't fun "or deep or interesting in any way." "The second reason this is horrible is that we had lasers [...] and it just wasn't us. I don't know, I'll never make a game with a sword in it." 2D Boy extrapolated two things from their experience: "No amount of theming will save a bad idea" and the second thing was that "Trying to live up to a previous game is paralyzing."

Then George Fan (of Plants vs. Zombies and Popcap fame) took the stage. He opened his bit with a slide entitled "My Failure Story." He continued with a little background on his history as a child doodling and sketching out game ideas in rough drawings on papers. And he ended this with "Cat-Mouse-Foosball," the first game he made; "hey, [the design] worked for Bomberman, why couldn't it work for Cat-Mouse-Foosball." "I prototyped one level of the game and realized how poorly it played and never bothered with the rest," citing all of the other peripheral design work he did at the start of the project as being a waste of time. Fan then showed a demo that he made in the present of Cat-Mouse-Foosball and considered it an accurate representation, albeit ten years later, of how bad the game was.

"In 2001, I almost quit making games forever..." Fan says in another slide. "The first thing I had to do was recognize the distinction between a thing I was familiar with [illustration] and something I was not [game design]." "Games are more like this complicated machine" rather than a quick sketch someone can envision in their head or jot down on a piece of paper. "[Games just] aren't something you can keep in your head once." This led Fan to his first conclusion: "Start prototyping the game as soon as you can [...] you're not going to know if the game is fun or not until you're actually sitting there playing the game." He ended his presentation by saying "Don't give up! If you love what you do, you will persevere."

Next up in the failure workshop was Matthew Wegner, who founded Flashbang Studios (which started as a casual game development company with only three people). "After we had some money in the bank" a few years later, Flashbang then went on to make a variety of games that were done in, roughly, eight weeks a piece and uploaded to Blurst.com. And this whole process didn't lead Flashbang to any money. Wegner simplified this to saying eight weeks is too little time to make a game like World of Goo but too much time for a game like Canabalt. Flashbang's first game, Offroad Velociraptor Safari, was their first release and accounted for almost a third of all of their traffic. "We set Blurst up in such a way as if it failed [...] we still had a really great time."

Wegner then moved on to Off-Road Velociraptor Safari HD which would take their most popular game and make an HD version of it for consoles. They spent three months on the HD version building off of the web version and preparing it for publisher work. Wegner then showed off the result of this time with the trailer for Offroad Velociraptor Safari HD. "We were definitely pushing in this HD direction [...] and it turned out to be a pretty big mistake. We were currently three people and by calling the game HD" Flashbang was setting unrealistic expectations to everyone who would play the game. "And it turned out that we actually hated working on this" and the act of simply polishing an old game with better graphics and sanded edges. Wegner summarized this with a quote from Dean Karnazes: "Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness."

Summarizing the issues with the HD approach, Wegner related a unicycle example to lead to his eventual point "we weren't willing to fall backwards" and get weird and clever with the game they were working on. The team then redirected a little and attempted to become a bit more non-photorealistic with a cartography look and explore, in similar senses, with the gameplay mechanics. One of the design mistakes Flashbang drew from this redirection is that they failed "design[ing] for players."

Chris Hecker ended the Failure Workshop with his "Rock Climbing Failure." "We're going to concentrate on the failures between 2001 and 2003," Hecker said, joking about ignoring the other independent failures. Hecker talked about everything he was involved with during this period of time that wasn't "ship[ing] the game." He then demoed the game.

"So what went wrong?" he asked. He then listed out: "Technology rat-holing. Non-game distractions. And lack of ass-in-chair." Hecker then demonstrated a ridiculous level of math in Mathematica. It was pretty great. Hecker said all of these failures all boil down to one single problem: "I was scared of game design," continuing, "Design is hard, unpredictable, mysterious, unstable." He concluded by pointing to Spy Party and saying that while all of the aforementioned problems still arise, he is solving the fundamental problem by making sure that everything he does is playable.


How to Win the IGF in 15 Weeks or Less

Posted by , in Summits, Indie Games, Design, Production 01 March 2011 - - - - - - · 1,104 views

Andy Schatz, the developer of Monaco, took the stage to preface his session by saying he isn't going to talk about how to make an IGF winner but, rather, just to tell his story.

"What's [important] is your inspiration and motivation when making games," Schatz says as he recalls September 29, 2009, adding "I was depressed." He talked about being in a rut and making indie games for five years and having it go nowhere. He was working on the third title in his Venture sim series and "it sucked" (as Schatz recalls). He had reached the end of the time he was giving his independent break from AAA game development and was depressed. So, next, Schatz took on board games because they're "all about mechanics" and says it's a very good way to get your brain flowing.

Andy Schatz talked about wanting desperately to make a game about "stealing shit," but was concerned that the fanbase he earned from the Venture sim series (who were largely kids) would conflict with the goal of a game about stealing things. Despite that, though, Schatz made a Monaco board game. He did this on a break from his full-time project and then, when he took his next break from his full-time project, he took a break and he said he's going to make Monaco as an XNA game in a week and that would be his last break from the third entry in his Venture series. Schatz said he wanted to make this heist game like a roguelike.

After tackling some of the technical details of prototyping Monaco, Schatz moved on to talking about what type of tools to use when making a game. Schatz talked about using Torque for the Venture series and citing it as a mistake, then using Unity which (he feels) would have enforced a certain look on the game, and then customizing the look of Monaco by using the "just enough of a framework" XNA toolset.

An interesting side-note about Andy Schatz's presentation is his use of old Facebook status updates, which he uses to bind the session to a narrative spine and function as an ad hoc "digital archeology" (taking the term from GDC cohort Ben Abraham).

Schatz then talked about Ventura Dinosauria (the third entry in his Venture series) and that DINOSAURS ARE AWESOME. And he is correct. Unfortunately, Schatz couldn't make the game fun. "If you want to have a takeaway from this, this is it: I made sure I worked on one cool thing every day. [...] And I never worked on something that took me longer than one day." I'm editorializing here, but: this is awesome and a completely true and valid approach to independent development. "When you think of game development as a holistic thing," Schatz continued, "you get much farther when you're enjoying yourself."

"The number two thing that you can take away from this," Schatz says, "is that you should have people playing your game from day two." He cited his experience from the recent PAX expo. Schatz also makes a crucial difference between "advisors" and people who are just playing ("people who don't know shit about games"). "You can't have too many advisors," just people who align with your general goal and can give you good, pointed advice. The people who don't know about games, regardless of how bad their opinions are, their impressions are crucial. "There are three questions I ask every one of these people: 'What did you like?,' 'What did you not like?,' and 'What confused you?," and when they tell me what I should change, I ignore them."

In talking about how he financed his independent operation, Schatz cited contract work as the best way to make a lot of money, but "it's not fun." "If you're working on a project that just makes money you're going to make money or you go out of business. And if you're working on a project to make recognition you're going to make recognition or you're going to just make money," Schatz said of his independent development philosophy.

When talking about moving Monaco from tile-based visibility to movement to his new lighting and visibility algorithm (that went from being a pretty but distracting mosaic look to a more vector-based approach) took Schatz two months. This was his first and, by far, his longest feature to work on and broke his one-cool-thing-a-day work goal. "Even though it did take me two months, it was something I felt that was cool and interesting."

Schatz then turned to a discussion about game mechanics vs. "experience" and the difficulty in marrying these two things. "As an indie, you're never going to get over that uncanny valley hump, [...] but there are areas" in which independent developers can bridge the realism gap such as, as Schatz points out, sound. He creates a very complex soundscape in Monaco to help the game's overall "experience."

Andy Schatz ends the talk with a near-final Facebook status update that shows how much his mood has increased and how much more productive he was when he did something that he enjoyed. "And fifteen weeks later, I had won the IGF."