GDC Recap and Ensuing Inspiration

So it’s been quite a while since my last post, but rest assured I’ve been hard at work. I recently attended GDC, met with a lot of game programming superstars, had far too much food, too little sleep, and overall had an excellent time. For anyone seriously interested in developing games or working in the game industry, it is most certainly the place to go. I was fortunate enough to hang out with some very cool people that seemed to know everyone, and it was great to talk with folks that had different opinions and outlooks on the game industry. I found the indie talks to be the most inspirational. Everyone likes a good story, and the indie developers naturally have strong personal ties to their work, and just about every tale each developer told left you with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

I also received a lot of really good advice, both directly and through many of the presentations that were given. The common theme I got from many of the indie developers, which I took to heart, was “shut up and make your damn game already”. Or, put more eloquently, you need to know what to focus on to make your game good. The engine doesn’t need to be perfect, nor do the graphics, nor does the AI or the physics or any of the other technical aspects of the game. They simply need to be good enough to get the game accross to the player, and for it to be fun. Obviously, the technology shouldn’t get in the way, and it takes a lot of time to make it right. But the final measurement of success, one that my artistic side strongly identifies with, is “were you able to convey the experience you wanted the player to have”. So, in the spirit of that advice, I came home very excited to flesh out all of the gameplay mechanics necessary for my game to become a reality.

I also received a lot of good personal feedback for someone that is creating their first real game. The overwhelming consensus was, “If this is your first game, it’s going to suck, and it will be a soul crushing experience; don’t give up”. Not necessarily the news I wanted to hear, and of course I have to believe whatever I’m working in will be the best thing since sliced bread just to keep hope alive. But it is excellent advice about reigning in expectations. If you would describe your concept for your very first game as “epic” or “groundbreaking”, you are most likely in for a world of hurt. It will most likely never be finished, or it won’t be fun and you won’t know why. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but I greatly sympathize with this opinion. I remember when I was 14 working with RPG Maker thinking I was going to make the next Final Fantasy except the story was going to be better, and the game was going to be longer, etc. Months into it I had about 15 minutes of real gameplay because I spent all my time making custom sprites for the first village in the game. So much for ‘Ultra-Omega Quest for Infinity – Deluxe Edition’.

This ties in nicely with a lot of the advice given by the mobile and social gaming presenters: “Experiment until you find something fun, distill it down to a single simple kernel of what makes it fun, and build a game by adding only features which enhance or augment this kernel of fun”. This seems obvious. It’s how the folks working at the social media and mobile gaming dev houses manage to spit out a game every 2 months with only a handful of developers. Simple game mechanics are often the most addicting ones. I personally am not a fan of social or trivial mobile games, partially because I’m a big fan of the whole “games as an artform” argument. However the points raised I feel are very poignant for someone developing their first real game. Play around and prototype your ideas, figure out what works and what doesn’t, strip your game down to just what works, and polish the hell out of it.

I also received some great advice from one of the lead coders at Valve who stressed playtesting very heavily. You want to know how someone unfamiliar with your game is going to react to it. You as a developer are naturally one of the worst people that could playtest a game because you know what to expect, you have a preconceived notion in your head about how the game plays and how you want it to play, and it is difficult to separate that and look objectively at exactly what the game is presenting you with. Therefore, you want to have a lot of playtesters. A LOT. And in terms of playtesting experience, a playtester is only useful once, and cannot be used again because they will enter the game with a preconceived notion of how the game plays, or used to play, or is supposed to play. If you’re an indie developer, expect to exhaust your family, friends, friends of friends, possibly even your waitress, hairdresser or pet goldfish.

When you ask your playtesters about the experience, you should ask them very open ended questions. In fact Andy Schatz, creator of last years IGF winner ‘Monaco’ had a very simple list of questions. “What did you like, what didn’t you like, and what confused you?”. He explained that he does not take suggestions on how to “fix” the game, only input on what worked and what didn’t; he maintains creative control on how the problems are solved. On the other hand, Markus “Notch” Persson had a different view on feedback for his game ‘Minecraft’. At first he was concerned about taking feedback from everyone on the internet claiming to have great ideas for his game. It’s a difficult line to walk, knowing that what someone likes, someone else will dislike, and ultimately you need to be true to your heart and add what you think is right for the game. However, as he hired other developers to work on Minecraft, they started to show him ideas he hadn’t considered or dismissed thinking they may not be in line with his vision. He ended up liking a number of these new features and they are finding their way into the game.

Personally, all this advice gave me a great idea of what my next steps should be. I’ve been hard at work adding user input, core game logic, rules and mechanics into my game. Every time I build the game, I have a new feature to play around with, which always gets me thinking about other features that could tie into the way the game works. I’m still not sure how the game will turn out, if other people will find it fun, and I doubt it will be as groundbreaking as I would like for it to be, but I feel like I have a basis of what is important to the game, and what aspects of the game I want to place a high value on going forward to ensure that I give the player the experience I want them to have while playing the game. So, stay tuned for more technical demos and progress, and look forward to the day a polished vertical slice of my game becomes a reality.

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March 25, 2011 Games