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March 07, 2011

GDC 2011 - Wednesday, Part 1

This is the first in a short series of posts about last week’s GDC in San Francisco. I’m not sure how many posts as yet, but probably no more than three or four.

I came to GDC early this year to participate in some pre-GDC stuff. Game night with friends Saturday night, pre-GDC Board Games on Sunday night, and then Monday and Tuesday caught up on the city, including a visit to SFMOMA, which is one of my favorite museums in the world, and a little time with a friend from Double Fine. Tuesday night, too, was time for friends, with dinner with some great friends from Sonoma County and a visit to the bookstore with them.

Wednesday morning opened early with a keynote from Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo. It started well, showing trends in the industry over the past few years, and also recapped a little of his personal history with games and game development. Unfortunately, this was interrupted with a visit from Reggie Fils-Aime, who came up to the stage to sell us all on the 3DS. It wasn’t what I had come for, and although I wasn’t entirely surprised, I did feel like I was sold a bit of a false bill of goods by the lecture title. Iwata returned to the stage with his concerns for the future, which were loosely as follows:

  • Craftsmanship: Iwata is concerned about game quality, as we all should be.
  • Talent development: Modern game design and development has become more and more about specialization¹, and Iwata feels a well-rounded, balanced person is where the really great work comes from. He asked rhetorically, “Where will the next generation of master developers come from?”
  • Price pressure: This one was a little jarring, coming as it did while Jobs prepared to announce the iPad2 literally next door to Moscone North. Iwata is concerned that it will be difficult to provide experiences like the Zelda games should prices be driven low, and that game quality will suffer. I could, and may, write a whole post about this, but my quick gloss would be that the landscape is changing; we need either to provide an experience which justifies its cost or bend to the current environment.

Next up was Clint Hocking, who tackled the origin of meaning. I’m looking forward to his slides, since over the course I took few notes (knowing that the slides will be forthcoming). Hocking subscribes to the MDA Framework (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics), about which much has been written, and he used it as a means to examine the potential sets of meanings which came from his own games. It was a really terrific talk, and I look forward to thinking it over further once the slides appear on his site. I spoke with Clint later in the day and commended him on what I felt was likely to be the finest talk I saw this year, and he cautioned me that it was early yet -- he was right about that, and more on that when I discuss Friday’s talks.

Around lunchtime was the GDC Microtalks, which I thoroughly enjoyed last year. This year was no different -- the format is that each speaker presents 20 slides which are visible for 16 seconds; all presentations are meant to touch on a particular theme, which this year was “Say What You Play.” Though I took notes on each speaker and enjoyed each talk, I particularly took things away from:

  • Michael John, who spoke about “playing” with games by working with his daughter on building one with Scratch, something that I’d like to do with my own kids
  • Jamin Warren, who urged game players to talk with non-players about what experiences they’ve had, to tell stories to encourage others to give it another look. It called to mind the gentlemen at the Radio Lab podcast and radio show, who have made similar points about the importance of storytelling to changing public perception about science.
  • Asi Burak, who suggested that maybe our immense financial success has caused us to cease challenging ourselves. I’m not certain that’s true, but it gave me pause to think about it, and
  • Brandon Boyer, chairman of the IGF this year, who exhorted us to speak more to the human condition, to delve into sincerity, to bring into existence what we must.²

Well, I’ve got to get up and out to work, so this will have to do for the first post. I’m about halfway through the first day, so at this rate it’ll be about six posts, but I suspect it will actually be fewer. In any case, we’ll see, join me over the next few days (and in the RSS feeds if you prefer).

¹Particularly true of programming, but not just true of programming.
²For my own small efforts in this area, see “Personal Games” in the sidebar.

Posted by Brett Douville at March 7, 2011 08:39 AM


Yes, it was awkward to see Iwata and Fils-Aime essentially compete with smartphones - first by touting the Nintendo 3DS's ability to stream Netflix (that would make it the fifth device in my house that can do that, after my microwave oven), and then by taking a defensive stance against low-cost app store games. The friends I was sitting with were playing "Tiny Wings" on an iPhone before the talk began, and while I agree with Iwata that a quickie game like that isn't equivalent to a Mario or a Zelda, I wouldn't mind seeing Nintendo feel price pressure on stuff like Wii Play, or even Brain Age.

I am kicking myself for missing Clint Hocking's talk.

Posted by: Chris Dahlen at March 8, 2011 08:03 PM

One great thing about Clint (there are many) is that he posts a complete transcript; while it's not the same as being there, if you can imagine his voice and pacing, it's pretty close. I've re-read his talks several times and always have a pretty good sense of "being there".

I'm hoping to have time to come back and touch on several talks that I attended that were related, on the subject of meaning in games, which was one of the major themes I pursued in the lectures I attended at GDC this year.

Posted by: Brett Douville at March 10, 2011 10:23 AM