Those of you who follow the show know Eric was out last week, across the ocean in San Francisco, attending the Game Developer’s Conference. He’s still in the process of digesting everything, but here are a few takeaways from the sessions he attended, starting with the two-day Game Design Workshop that kicked off GDC.
First of all, thank you to everyone following the live show who put up with my absence last week. I know we did the extra long pre-GDC show to make up for it, but it felt strange not being able to talk to you, and I missed all of you dropping by! I should also say hello to any of you who arrived here after we met at GDC; I hope you get a chance to check out the live show on Twitch. As I always say when the show starts, you shouldn’t have any trouble following along, but if you want to see any of our past episodes, they’re all up on YouTube.
Now on to GDC and the highlight of the show for me: the Game Design Workshop that took place on Monday and Tuesday. The last time I attended GDC was back in 2011, and at the time I was helping with some Japanese-English interpreting, so I couldn’t attend the workshop, even though I had already heard great things about it. This year, I made sure to join, and it was well worth it. Not only did I get to meet an amazing range of people, but the workshop sessions did a good job breaking game design down into the fundamentals that get lost so easily when jumping into a new project or fiddling with tools.
For those of you who don’t know what it is, the Game Design Workshop is two days of small groups rearranging themselves to take on activities handed out by the veteran game designers leading the sessions. The activities ranged from things like taking a basic card game and re-theming it, then readjusting the rules to better support the theme (backstabbing in Game of Thrones!), to taking a classic video game, deciding the core aesthetic emotion it creates in players, and trying to recreate that same emotion through a simple set of index cards, playing cards, and dice. Of course I couldn’t resist joining the Spelunky team (although when I heard Joust called out, I wavered a bit), and I’ll use what we did as an example for the kind of activities we did.
The team I was on used index cards to represent threats, treasures, health refills, and shops, with decisions to flee (for an easier dice roll) or attack (destroying the enemy and possibly revealing a treasure). The design went right down to the time limit, but by the end, we had a decent representation of the kind of aesthetic emotion Spelunky kicks out. Halfway through the exercise, I moved on to test the Hotline Miami room-clearing game another team did, and it did an incredible job of capturing the aesthetics of the game. (It was actually fun enough that I’d probably just play it again as a game.)
So how does playing with paper help with video games? Keeping everything basic is an easy way to make sure no one gets distracted by complicated tools or by getting things to work. With game jams, or game development in general, so much time is spent mastering tools or getting things to work, that it’s very difficult to focus on pure game design, and that sets a trap for designers, including myself, to fall into: Spending so much effort getting a game mechanic to work that, when it’s done, the sunk-cost fallacy kicks in and prevents the designer from seeing the problems.
And there’s a time factor. As you can tell by watching the show, even a simple game takes a lot of time to get working. But with cards, you can scrap and rebuild the whole concept in a matter of minutes. Good games are all about iteration (test, fail, try again), so being able to experiment several times per hour, rather than several times per year, means the game gets better much faster. Sunk cost kicks in here too, because, when it takes so long to get things working, nobody wants to throw away all of the work done so far, resulting in a loss of flexibility. To be fair to game development teams, the need to put food on the table means the option of throwing everything away and starting from scratch is not usually an option.
Of course, using simple tools also makes sure people of different skill levels can all participate. Everyone there was there because they loved games and thinking about games, so it put everyone on equal footing. The best groups, in terms of getting a prototype out and iterating, weren’t the groups who had the experienced game designers, but the groups that had the best democracy kicking. Reflecting back on some of the game development teams I’ve been a part of, the same was true then too. Teams that felt comfortable communicating and sharing talking time tended to solve problems faster and get things done sooner, and better, while teams that had a god-like director or lead tended to get bogged down in problems.
That democracy theme also ties into another talk I attended about making a better game studio, where the presenter went over group IQ and referenced research on collective intelligence by Dr. Anita Woolley. The idea is that a group’s IQ is mostly unrelated to the individual IQs of the members; instead, it’s related how well the members communicate. It was also noted that having a group composed of men and women helped significantly, something I’ve also experienced. From past projects, team effectiveness seemed to peak when everyone had equal say and equal speaking time. (Not to mention enjoyment seemed to peak too!) Even within the same team, time pressures later in the project tended to make teams less efficient, rather than more efficient, because tempers would flare, people would grow stubborn, and communication would break down.
So having that lecture on studio management come right after seeing small groups working under a time crunch was perfect. After witnessing it firsthand, I’m now a full believer in group IQ theory, and if I do get the chance to collaborate with someone in the future, it’s something I’m going to keep in mind.
If you’re curious to see the kind of rapid prototyping activities that went on during the Game Design Workshop, you can check some samples from past sessions out over at http://8kindsoffun.com. And if you can gather up a few game-loving friends, they’re worth trying out. You might even get a solid card or board game out of them.
I’ll continue to post about the other sessions I attended in the coming weeks as I digest them, but thank you again for letting me head off to San Francisco to attend GDC!