Saturday, April 12, 2008

Report from GDX

So, I'm just heading home from GDX 2008. My talk was about what a nontechnical game designer can do to get a better understanding of programming; I'll post a link to the slides as soon as I figure out where to host them.

The conference itself was great; it was small (about 700 people, compared to the ~30,000 at GDC) which meant that you actually have the time to have real conversations with people, without having to leave to say a quick 'hi' to twenty more people. You have time to actually play games with other game developers. You get to meet the people for the first time who you've previously passed a dozen times in the hallways of GDC, like ships in the night.

Some quick thoughts that I wrote down from all of my various side discussions with people, in no particular order:
  • There's a common pattern in teaching game design: many students start out wanting to make a copy of their favorite big-budget game; as students, they have this huge gift that is the academic freedom to innovate, and they just want to make Something of War-something. After they get in the industry and the novelty wears off, then they want the freedom to create and innovate that they no longer have. The professors from industry are already at the point where they value creative freedom and we're setting up our classes to provide what we wish we had when we were students, but we forget for a moment that we didn't appreciate what we had at the time. I'm not sure if there's a way to fix this, other than to treasure the few students who are exceptions and set them up as examples for everyone else.

  • The term "independent" (or "indie") as applied to game development is vague, because it can mean any combination of three different things: business model (not owned by a publisher), money (low-budget, not AAA), or experimental gameplay (not just a derivative clone). It might be better to abolish the term "indie" from our vocabulary, and be more specific about what we're talking about.

  • Women and minorities are still being horribly marginalized in the mainstream game industry (okay, no news there). But, most of the efforts to fix this so far have focused on attracting more of them to the industry. I'm thinking that an equally important piece of the puzzle is raising awareness within the existing industry that this is a major problem. In the past, I've suggested that every game designer should take Women's Studies as a class; I should add Minority Studies to the list. And I should specify that these would not be electives or suggestions, but required coursework for anyone seeking a game degree.

  • Since the beginning of time, some games have been designed with technical constraints first. Today, it's something like "point-and-click is easy to implement in Flash, so what games can we make where the only player action is point-and-click?" A couple hundred years ago, it was "we have all these maps, what games can we play that use maps?" Three thousand years ago, it was "we have all this wood and rocks and pebbles, so what games can we play with wood and rocks and pebbles?"


Brian Shurtleff said...

It was nice getting to finally meet you at GDX. :)

As for getting students to innovate while they still can, another big factor is the attention grabbing effect that doing something truly innovative can bring, at least if it works. For students trying to get their foot in the door, the free press generated would be a big help. So, that effect should be stressed to students. That attention is tangibly worth more than mere teacher-encouragement (although encouragement is also nice.)

Also, if students are encouraged to be experimental, it follows that the punishment for the idea completely failing should be fairly low.
Admittedly, compared to real professional game development, any student project is low-risk as instead of million dollar budgets the most one risks is a lower grade. As a student though, it's hard to have that perspective.
So students need to be encouraged to fail in the face of trying something new.
That works well as lessons learned from bitter awful failure stick out more strikingly in one's memory...

Nate.Lapinski said...

I found your blog inspirational, wonderful, educational, and a lot of fun to read. I happen to teach game design, along with quite a few other computer subjects, and I want to thank you for keeping a blog.

Ian Schreiber said...

Brian: Was great meeting you in person, too!

I agree that "make something innovative and you'll get an industry job" is a great motivator for students. (Honestly, I could probably convince my students to eat their own feces if I could think of a plausible reason why it'd get them an industry job. Good thing I'm not evil.)

However, there's still the problem that the student won't appreciate the freedom they have until it's already gone. For me, experimental games are less of a means, more of an end, and I'd like to share the joy of experimenting with new gameplay forms (for its own sake) with my students. If I have to use the promise of working on a small part of a large game devoid of creative freedom as a motivator to do something that should be inherently fun, I can't help thinking I'm failing in my purpose.

Nate: Welcome to the blog! I'm glad you find it useful.

Chris Dodson said...

I enjoyed meeting you at GDX and having some great discussions over the old MTG design days. Your blog is fantastic, I am going to have to finally get one of these myself.

The problem I generally run into with my students being innovative is, as you say, they want that job. They feel pressure (rightly so) to make sure their portfolio contains something that will get them hired. As an example, at the very same conference Blizzard was looking at some of the student portfolios and telling them they pretty much wanted to see someone who could replicate the Blizzard style. This of course was for artwork, but you see my point.

I love flash games and traditional, non-digital games, because these are mediums where students feel they can innovate a bit more. Also, I find that students modding with engines like Unreal makes it very difficult to break out of the standard cliches'. Yet these type of mods are the very thing that get them hired, so we have a bit of a paradox.

A. Ortiz said...

Funny you should mention point-and-click games being what contrain our gameplay ideas now. If only we could remove even that from the interface. We end up with questions and ideas like "What kind of digital game can we make with people IMing each other?"

A few students and I made a game a couple of quarters ago using only point-and-click, and incorporated everything from running to jumping to puzzles without the player having to touch the keyboard. Thinking back on it, that was a pretty exciting success.