The Game Developers Conference (GDC) has taken on a certain mystique amongst gamers and gaming press alike. An alternative to the cacophonic marketing blitzkrieg that is E3, the GDC seems to offer journalists and developers just the right atmosphere to network and discuss the nitty-gritty of game design and development. This year’s GDC started late Monday afternoon (South African time), and while I’m not there myself, NAG will be scouring the Internet to bring you the best from the show.
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It’s an all-star extravaganza this year with both the Independent Games Festival (IGF) Awards and the Game Developers Choice Awards to be held the same week. While the finalists for the IGF have been known for some time, the finalists for the Developers Choice Awards have now been announced. Ken Kutaragi — considered the father of the PlayStation — will be honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award; Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill will be recognised for their pioneering work in League of Legends; and Anita Sarkeesian will receive the Ambassador Award for her Feminist Frequency videos and their impact on prevailing attitudes in the gaming community.
The talks, of course, are one of the main points of the show, and this year doesn’t disappoint. Industry luminaries John and Brenda Romero, Warren Spector and Richard Lemarchand (who led/co-led the design on all three Uncharted games) discussed their experiences within triple-A development and their transition to academia. The incredible Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and its expansion pack Freedom Cry get some critical attention from Ubisoft’s Hugo Giard and Jill Murray — discussing how rather than aiming for a “fun” experience similar to Black Flag, Freedom Cry instead provokes the player by invoking powerful rather than positive emotions, and breaking down how this difference pervades the design of Freedom Cry.
Thought you were good at Hearthstone? Turns out that Hearthstone‘s was an interesting exercise in annealing difficulty, according to Blizzard Entertainment senior AI and gameplay engineer Brian Schwab. Watching players of all levels of the game, Schwab says, “What I really started to learn is that advanced players of Hearthstone don’t play the game. They play the meta game.” In other words, they track what’s happening outside of the game board, such as potential remaining cards in their opponents’ decks, whereas intermediate players focused on the here and now. As such, the AI was designed to cater for the intermediate-level player. Sorry Miklós.
There was a big focus on narrative on the first day of GDC, and it shows. Sean Vanaman of The Walking Dead fame (and who’s working on recently announced Firewatch) broke down some of the design decisions behind Firewatch, explaining that narrative is intricately tied to design and that asking players to “ignore” certain design choices in order to properly experience the narrative is absurd. Riot Games narrative lead Tom Abernathy and Microsoft Studios designer Richard Rouse III discussed how the traditional three-act story structure, while so effective in other media, can prove a hindrance to video game narratives. Indie game designer Elizabeth LaPensée explained how the oral history of cultures can be captured in games with an indigenous focus, and are aided by the non-linear nature of the medium.
It wasn’t all arts and crafts, however. Rogue Legacy developers got down to business, explaining that working on a tight development budget, both in tools and time, can aid you in quickly iterating through a game’s design to its core components. Rogue Legacy cost just under $15,000 dollars to make and has sold around 100,000 copies on Steam alone. At the Free to Play (hiss) Design & Business Summit, free-to-play developers ran through a series of six-minute talks highlighting means for improving free-to-play retention, covering everything from daily log-in awards to timed narrative events that keep players coming back.
And despite all the positive press around Kickstarter’s ability to aid developers, there’s a darker side as well: Steve Swink of successfully funded Scale explains that for him, Kickstarter was the only means for funding, but that campaigns should be carefully considered before being created. From warping your original design through massive backer feedback to general anxiety, Kickstarter remains a powerful marketing and funding tool but can have a deleterious effect on your ambitions and physical wellbeing, he argues.
That’s it for now. You can also check out GDC’s official Flickr gallery here for photos of the event.