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GDC09, Day 5: Conclusion

Obviously this post comes somewhat after the fact, but I figured I should make the attempt regardless.

The final day of GDC09 was just as packed with good lectures as any other. Of course, by this point, I was somewhat in the “flow” of the event and was really starting to know my way around the conference (or at least so I felt).

First up was “Procedural Texturing on Multi-Core CPU: New creative opportunities through scalability” with Ed Plowman from Intel and Dr. Sébastien Deguy from Allegorithmic. Procedural content generation… right up my alley. While I tend to focus more on environmental content (landscape, cities, etc.), this talk dealt primarily with procedural graphics; more precisely, procedural textures. Allegorithmic offers a toolkit (Substance) allowing designers/artists to provide texture definitions as opposed to pure bitmaps, offering a space savings of up to 94% in some cases. As a friend of mine put it, it’s something like giving someone a one-page recipe as opposed to trying to transport and deploy an entire smegging cake. In addition to the space savings, procedural textures can be much more realistic and dynamic than regular bitmaps; however, this comes at the cost of CPU power required to actually generate the textures from a given rule set. The point of the talk was essentially that the increasing abundance of multi-core (and soon, many-core) systems will be able to take up the task of procedural texture generation, allowing a whole new range of effects and mechanics. It was also interesting to see the Substance toolkit that Allegorithmic develops; one can use it to define a pipeline of parametrisable, procedural effects. The toolkit I developed for my own thesis is a somewhat simpler, pared-down version of Substance, but it’s nice to see that I was on the same track as a commercially-viable product.

Next came Brenda Brathwaite, renowned game designer and professor of game design at Savannah College of Art and Design. Her talk, “100 Questions, 97 Answers, 56 Minutes,” was a fairly hilarious and rapid-fire FAQ covering the do’s and don’ts of entering the game industry. In a nutshell: don’t be an idiot, have a nice-looking website (Nick fail) and a decent portfolio, and work your ass off. My favourite bit: “Q: What was it like to work on [awesome game title here]? A: It was ecstasy, the greatest experience ever. Also, it was like being on fire from the inside.”

After that, I decided to pay a visit to my IGDA-approved mentor, Dustin Clingman: professor at Full Sail game design university, CEO of Zeitgeist Games, and web designer extraordinaire. He was moderating “The Dating Game,” a panel examining the possibility of creating the video game equivalent of the “date movie.” Some of the inherent difficulties: movies are viewed in the “neutral territory” of a theatre, while games normally take place in someone’s house; games are often aggressively competitive, as opposed to co-operatively engaging; and the huge drop-off of girl gamers after the 8-10 year-old range. Solutions included: reinvigorating public arcades with co-operative, semi-private games (think shooters taking place in enclosed booths); games that don’t require both hands and full attention, allowing more interaction between the happy couple without punishing them for looking away momentarily; and perhaps making use of user-generated content, or communal creation, resulting in a tangible artefact both parties can enjoy. Really interesting discussion, and it got me thinking of how I would implement my own such game. “Thinking” being the key word here.

Finally, I checked out Ian Bogost’s lecture, “Learning from the Atari 2600” (and even got him to sign my copy of Unit Operations… ask me about the full story some time). The lecture was scheduled in the same time slot as a Peter Molyneux talk, prompting Mr. Bogost to remark: “At least in a talk about the Atari, all my predictions will come true.” Ah! levity. Anyway, Bogost started by relating his experience playing a Chronicles of Narnia game with his daughter. The latter had loved the book/movie, and expected to re-live some of the story’s iconic moments; instead, the game was just “an incessant barrage of wolves.” In looking at games for the Atari 2600, Bogost dug up a number of successful and less-successful ports, from both coin-op games and movies. What worked best, he found, were games capturing an appropriate feel and experience, such as the Empire Strikes Back game, and more recently Wii Bowling (on the Wii Sports disc). These simple games nevertheless reflected a complete experience: the former, the desperate struggle of the Rebellion against insurmountable odds; the latter, the key elements of bowling alley play. The moral: focus on experiences, only port a concept and not a full game/movie. Interestingly, he also claimed that E.T., consistently considered the worst game of all time, was actually a very faithful adaptation of the movie—“a film about alientation, not aliens”—in its representation of confusion and isolation. In that case, I’d also argue that A Boy and His Blob (NES) is a faithful adaptation of E.T.

With the lectures of the day—and thus GDC as a whole—complete, I returned to my hotel room to watch Hercules Returns with me mates, before taking an early flight out of San Francisco.

GDC09 was a blast. The lectures were mind-expanding and educational; more importantly however, being surrounded by like-minded people so very devoted to making games was hugely inspirational. I owe a monstrous debt to the IGDA for making the trip possible. A tip of the hat to the other IGDA scholars as well—it was fascinating to meet and discuss games with such a great group of people. With any luck, I’ll be seeing them all again soon.

And now it’s back to the real world.