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March 11, 2011

GDC 2011 - Late Wednesday to Early Thursday

Here’s the second in a series of posts covering what I saw at GDC 2011, covering from mid-Wednesday to mid-Thursday. I’m going to finish the “reporting” posts and then hopefully return with a post to tie up the kind of “themes” I was pursuing at the conference and what I learned along those themes.

After the microtalks, I walked over to Frank Lantz’ talk on “Go, Poker, and the Middle Way”, which involved an overview of the tensions in Go and a fairly personal reflection of time Lantz spent getting to know the game of poker. With respect to Go, which I gather Lantz hasn’t spent as much time with, he spoke of high-level play being a reflection of wisdom and experience, the interplay between concerns of a global nature and a local nature¹. Turning to poker, he spoke in-depth about his personal experience with the game, talking about how poker will break you, and that that is part of any deep experience with the game. He spoke of how “if poker is a meal, failure is an essential ingredient” and said that it’s not a simple thing that in-depth poker play changes how you view the world, that uncertainty becomes a kind of knowledge, and he intimated that he finds that sublime².

From talk of failure in poker I went to the “Failure Workshop”, where various indies talked about past failures and the lessons thereby learned. These were kind of “live postmortems” with personal reflections about how things went wrong, from the high profile failure of Stardock’s Elemental: Art of Magic, to unreleased work by the likes of Ron Carmel, Chris Hecker, and others. Chris Hecker identified the root issue he faced with his own failure, which was a fear of game design (he found many ways to avoid game design in development of his own failed title, including speaking at conferences, finding multiple technical solutions to problems), and which he has been attempting to address with Spy Party.

For my last seminar on Wednesday, I took in Kent Hudson’s talk about player-driven stories. Hudson presented a good talk last year on how the AI evolved on Bioshock 2, and how they addressed shortcomings in their development process mid-stream to deliver on the gameplay they really needed. Ultimately, I was a little let down by the talk; it seemed like it started to build a case for how to put together truly player-driven stories, and then came to a point where it seemed like “magic” had to happen³. I did think he made good points about story bits overall, that you can present story in some smaller, unique ways and that if you choose to go that way, you really need to “own” it -- really delivering the best you can in the area you choose, whether that be stylized still frames (like a comic) or the right kind of voice-over or what-have-you.

Thursday morning started off with a bang, with Eric Chahi presenting a post-mortem of Another World, a highly regarded game for many4. It was a really personal reflection of successful development, starting with a statement that for Chahi, “the nourishment of ideas is as important as the ideas themselves.” He described how he established his constraints early on and improvised within those constraints. From a technical standpoint, the game was built to be run with an interpreted language -- this made for the quick turn-around that permitted inspiration to flower. Chahi was really interested in the flow and rhythm of films, and he tried to replicate that rhythm in the rise and fall of action in the game. Furthermore, how scenes played out often reflected his personal feelings at the time, especially the loneliness he felt as a lone developer on this early title. This was a really terrific talk and it further amplified my interest in Chahi’s upcoming title with Ubisoft, Dust.

I'll pick up next time with another old-timer, Chris Crawford, the founder of the now 25-year-old conference.

¹As it happens, I was reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shortly thereafter, which features Go analogies somewhat heavily between two Japanese officials.
²Watch that word, “sublime”, it’s going to come back when I discuss Moriarty’s talk which was on Friday.
³Perhaps this just means a “significantly advanced technology” at this point, but the two have been epigrammatically linked as indistinguishable from each other.
4I admit that I haven’t played it, but I intend to rectify that when the game becomes available for the iPad, which Chahi announced late in the talk. It’s one I always wanted to play but never found time for.

Posted by Brett Douville at March 11, 2011 07:51 AM