Future Play – Day One

The conference gets off to a successful start.

My recent inexperience with alarm clocks meant that my day got started 40 minutes late, after some attendees had already started on their continental breakfasts. After quick preparation and a much shorter walk than anticipated (only from the car where my wife dropped me off), I arrived in time for the “conference continental”, which is just grabbing a doughnut or muffin and heading to a talk, but I skipped even that.

The opening keynote was entitled, “Experiences, Stories, and Video Games“, presented by John Buchanan, PhD, University Research Liaison for Electronic Arts. It got underway a little bit late because the projector technology was sympathetic to my own delay. However, the talk was quite entertaining, culminating in a comparison of the industry versus academia, and what we can expect from each in the future. The short summary is that business will not innovate unless it has to do so, because failure is expensive, and the bottom line is to make money, whereas academia will produce most of the real advances because experimentation is encouraged and failure is part of the process.

A significant portion of the opening keynote was devoted to exploring the advancement of graphics technology in video games and exploring and understanding the seemingly paradoxical fact that the more realistic a character looks, the harder it is to make that character seem real to the game player. Simple games like Pac-Man and Lemmings, with limited animations, have characters that are easier to relate to than a very realistic character that behaves like a zombie. However, the most memorable, and quotable, line from the presentation was Dr. Buchanan’s succinct definition of our jobs: “We turn Coke and pizza into games.”

For the next session, and in fact, for the next three sessions, I attended the “Game Tuning Workshop” presented by Marc LeBlanc of Mind Control Software (sans Andrew Leker, who got stuck at the office). To be clearer than the conference schedule, this was a single workshop intended to take three hours, not three one-hour workshops. After a brief introduction, our groups of six (or fewer) played a couple of rounds of a simple game, SiSSYFiGHT 3000.

SiSSYFiGHT 3000 is a simple game involving tokens (poker chips) and custom game cards. Each player is represented by a different color card, and is given an equal number of tokens (10) to start, with the goal being to be one of the last two players with tokens left. On each turn, every player selects any of three action cards, plus a target card with the color of another player. Cards are revealed simultaneously and the appropriate actions taken, basically determining how many tokens each player loses. The fiction given was that of girls in a schoolyard with the tokens representing self-esteem. (Details on the game can be found at Marc LeBlanc’s site, 8kindsoffun.com.)

After playing two rounds (or, actually, 2 full rounds plus an abbreviated game at our table), we were given the task of designing a different game starting with the SiSSYFiGHT mechanics. Each member of our group threw in three ideas for a game theme, and then all 18 were then combined and sorted into rough categories. We winnowed the field down to three possible themes before lunch: one true god, chopping off fingers, and competitive fire extinguishing.

Lunch was tasty.

At the start of the second portion of the workshop, we decided on our new game, entitled (unsurprisingly) One True God. The idea was that each player was a major god competing for human followers. We added a neutral non-believer pile, some conservation of followers, and the most notable feature, smiting. We worked out the rules, which were slightly more complicated, and then played a couple of test games. There were some minor flaws, and some emergent game dynamics. We then swapped players between the tables, so some of us got to play the other finished game, Bar Fight, where the added mechanic was a bouncer that significantly affected the actions of the player he was watching for that round. In the end, the design ideas had been conveyed well, and there was lots of laughter along the way.

For the next session, I attended a panel discussion, “Quality of life – Is reality in the games industry life as a disposable programmer?” Despite the awkward title, the session presented good information, although the number of students in the room dwarfed the number of working game developers. Perhaps that was partly due to the opposing session, “The Future of Game Publishing”, which I almost attended, until I realized that those of us doing online distribution are already there. Still, it was a tough decision.

Finally, it was time for the second keynote speech to close the first day. It was entitled, “Emerging Issues in Game Design“, and was presented by Ernest Adams. He had some interesting points as he did a survey of emerging issues leading from the immediate and practical to the esoteric and futuristic, covering such topics as interactive storytelling, serious games, dynamic content generation, sex in games, and artificial intelligence.

Finally, he ended with a buildup to the “biggest emerging issue of all“, and I really enjoyed the punchline: Casual Games. The mainstream video game industry is not fully aware that we already have a burgeoning community. As a game developer who has been involved in both environments, I am fascinated by this artificial separation. Mostly, though, I am pleased with the validation this provides for our decision to take the course we have.

Dinner was “on your own”, so I walked home and started this blog entry. Later in the evening, there was the conference party at a place called Club 131, where we have gone to see local bands in the past. Frankly, the party was fairly nondescript (or else I left too early for the real fun). I came home to get some rest, but decided to finish this instead. Done.

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