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Boston GameLoop notes

This past weekend, I attended the Boston GameLoop unconference. 150 or so game designers and thinkers came together Saturday morning, suggested topics, voted on the favourites, and spent the rest of the day in deep discussion and eating free delicious sandwiches. Success!

I’ve pulled together my notes from the five sessions I attended, and engaged in some moderate edit{ing|orialising}.

I. Embracing Failure in Narrative Design

  • RUN BY: Ben Cummings, BioWare Montreal
  • LA Noire: Too obvious failure metric, impulse to reload.
  • Roguelikes: bad shit always happen. User expects it.
  • Witcher 2 or Fahrenheit, auto-saves after every option, no going back. Deal with consequences.
  • Demon’s Souls
  • Can make failure state another gameplay style/mode/thing (e.g., ghost mode)
  • What makes it feel “good”?
  • Sense of accomplishment/interest immediately after fail, to keep player from reloading.
  • Dwarf Fortress… only interesting when things go to hell.
  • Avoiding punishing the player.
  • Design interesting systems for both success and fail.
  • Make “failure” have something interesting happen (story); e.g., abandoned ally becomes enemy.
  • MMOs where ghost mode has something interesting… rare, but cool.
  • Fallout allowed failure at every point, branching story lines.
  • Think of improv theatre, things keep moving. Don’t frame it as “failure”.
  • D&D… DMs always throw new interesting things after fails.
  • Must express to player that both success and fail have content.
  • Recalibrate player’s goals after failure instead of “you failed in your previous goal”
  • Or maybe you don’t? Give the choice to player to load or continue.
  • Groundhog Day/Majora’s Mask, failure to achieve enlightenment; keep doing over.
  • Last Express/White Chamber. A world with a lot of “right” and “wrong” places to go, let the player define their success.
  • The Path; about straying from the path.
  • Player perception: how hard are we being punished?
  • There’s a culture of entitlement, aversion to loss.
  • Must signal to player that they can roll with failure.
  • PASSAGE! And we’re done.
  • Actor vs. audience; actor wants to succeed, audience wants to see content.
  • Reloading feels cheap; failing feels bad. Having the option to save/reload gives suboptimal feeling in either branch.

A popular talk, although it felt as though we were primarily discussing how to deal with failure mechanically, rather than narratively, a point Ben brought up about halfway through. Everyone agreed though, that embracing failure in the narrative tends towards an exponential increase in content; and a corresponding desire on the part of the designers that everyone should see all the content; and on the part of the player to optimise their playthrough given explicit “success metrics.” The point was made (and I agree) that the player should be taught that failure is acceptable, and if not necessarily good, then at least compelling.

Of course, this assumes the designer wants players to experience a sense of consequence and improvisation; I think it’s absolutely valid and acceptable if a game is intentionally punishing and unfair if the author consciously chose this as a theme.

II. Outsider Games (as in “Outsider Art”)

  • RUN BY: Darius Kazemi, Bocoup
  • Someone who is not involved in criticism/art/distribution making things.
  • Definition looser in music.
  • Rough production values, outside of trends.
  • Pejorative to some, criticism of the term “outsider”
  • Is Katamari outsider?
  • Van Gogh was outsider originally, but wanted to be “in”.
  • Outsider aesthetic (again, rough production values)
  • Awareness of conventions, competence with tools; maybe, but perhaps not necessary.
  • Outside what?
  • Dig through XBLIG, desensitise to “polish” and just accept the games as is; try to understand the author’s intent.
  • Can an outsider artist make a non-outsider game and still be an artist?

Mostly typified by examples and counter-examples, the discussion sought to define a set of properties either necessary or sufficient to label something an “outsider” game. An “awareness of conventions and/or the medium” topped the list, although some authors can fake the lack thereof (e.g., Murder Dog IV: The Trial of the Murder Dog). At the same time, digital games enforce at least a minimum level of technical competence, which puts games like The War of the End of the Days on a strange, ill-defined continuum between “outsider” and “amateur.”

Darius has a good writeup of this session here.

III. Being Successful as an Indie Developer Forever

  • RUN BY: Ichiro Lambe, Dejobaan Games
  • Dejobaan makes a lot of mistakes
  • Considerations: game design, marketing, publishers, pricing, being unique.
  • Good design is good marketing.
  • Super Meat Boy: unique spin. Smuggle Truck as well.
  • Captivating/remarkable high concept -> get word of mouth
  • ask “what does our press release look like?”
    • if it’s remarkable, it’s good
    • prototype for fun from the start
  • Talk to people about the project early, talk often.
  • A constant battle with obscurity
  • With a web presence, show your passion. Don’t be second-rate.
  • Build towards event milestones (IndieCade, IGF, PAX, &c.)
  • Write game design as a press release
    • but don’t Molyneux it
  • Be as efficient as possible
  • Events/projects can have high prestige, but low income; or vice versa.
    • aim for one of these (or both!), but never neither
  • Interact with the community.

What’s worked for Dejobaan, in a nutshell: be unique, talk a lot (and passionately), involve the community in the process. One can always be innovative in established genres, but there still needs to be a definite “hook” to the game, and a surplus of energy to market the game and get people talking.

“To Molyneux” is now a verb, it seems. I Molyneuxed, I am Molyneuxing, I shall presently Molyneux.

IV. Games for Social Change that Don’t Suck

  • RUN BY: ??? (d’oh!)
  • Engaging vs. fun
  • Serious games, games for other than entertainment/commerce.
  • Fun and purpose. Most people make a “game for change,” but only engage awareness, not behaviour change.
  • Serious games boil down to PSAs.
  • Fate of the World, big cost. Only those who believe will buy; preaching to the choir.
  • What are good metrics for behaviour change?
    • Convert players into people who will take action.
  • Seatbelts—slow change from individuals bubbled up to government policy.
  • Akoha, forcing people to do “good” things, valueless points. System failed, went bankrupt.
  • Marketers try to be subtle; INCEPTION. Make the user think it’s their own choice.
  • “Learning by Accident”
  • Start from the fun, as opposed to from the social change?
  • But how do you connect awareness to action? How do you get behaviour to be part of the game?
  • Social pressure—needs a social (Facebook &c.) aspect?
  • Consider delta between picking up game, and enacting the game’s change. Small delta for Wii Fit, &c.
  • How do you follow through from teaching “torture is wrong” to getting people to vote with that in mind.
  • Encourage critical thinking and empathy.
  • Should we push one specific agenda, or just try to improve education, critical thinking, &c.
  • How can you convince “the choir” to go out and continue to preach?
  • Treat the choir as “guild leaders,” then “pay it forward”
  • Know the landscape of player engagement: some players are extremely involved, others less so. Encourage the active ones to organise the less-involved.
  • Can you move them all the way through the process to an actual tangible output?

Probably the most contentious of the talks I attended, marked by the tension between what people want to do with “games for social change” versus the experience (and accompanying cynicism) of those with numerous projects under their belt. I don’t necessarily agree that games have some sort of power above and beyond other media to elicit social change—I believe that they can, but no more than any other well-understood artefact—but it’s clear that a lot of work still needs to be done. The major hurdle we discussed in this talk was that of converting interested players into social actors. Without the latter, a designer’s influence is severely limited. As hinted above, I suppose one big problem is legibility: most people don’t “get” games or look at them superficially as toys, and either neglect—or just don’t know how—to approach them more critically. But that’s another discussion entirely.

Anyway, any media can be used as a double-edged tool. Some of the discussion bordered on means of effective propaganda, and therein lies the fun!

V. Prototyping

  • RUN BY: Caleb Garner, Part 12 Studios
  • GameSalad -> easy ports to Android
  • Find the fun, avoid wasting time
  • Similar to a game jam approach.
  • In a larger game, how do you do targeted prototyping?
  • Prototypes are good way for designers to rapidly express “feel” to developers.
  • Beware: spend too long on prototype, may get attached to it.
  • Does one task a team to prototype, or just sit and brainstorm first?
  • Should prototyping be part of initial time budget, or just arise as necessary?
  • Working with clients: make sure they know what is a prototype/programmer art.
  • DanC has free sprites, use free resources so clients don’t turn away in disgust
  • It doesn’t take a lot of work to not look bad.

A fairly straight-forward talk, which may be why I left fairly early: the discussion was entirely valid, but was mostly asserting that prototyping is good (!!), and that it should be done more often. I agree wholeheartedly.

An excellent unconference, with a great number of awesome people. Many thanks to Darius and Scott and all others involved, and don’t forget to check out Darius’ own write-up here.

GameLoop-da-whooop! Peace.