GDC Roundup 2008: Diversity and Innovation in the Contemporary Games Industry

Every Friday afternoon, the team at our GAMBIT Lab hosts a game critique session. Lab staff and students pick a theme, bring out a range of contemporary examples for people to play and pick apart, as the lab seeks to develop their own strategies for game design. GAMBIT’s remit commits it to trying to expand and diversify our understanding of games as a medium of expression. A few weeks ago, Eitan Glinert presented the group with his perspectives on the games which had been nominated or won awards at the recent Game Developers conference and they individually and collectively generated a lot of buzz and excitement in our group.

There is especial interest here in games which manipulate time and space in creative ways. Some years ago, I was part of a group which organized a series of Creative Leaders workshops for Electronic Art. One of the exercises we did was have game designers read passages from Alan Lightman’s novel, Einstein’s Dreams. Lightman, a physicist, was interested in describing worlds with radically different structures of time and space and then playing out how they would impact the lives of their residents. Our conversations with game designers focused on how they might giv e players the experience of “visiting” such worlds, though I have also had fun in class discussions getting students to imagine what it would mean to design media for the inhabitants of such worlds

Much of the creativity which Eitan saw exhibited at this year’s conference emerges from the newly revitalized indie games movement — a topic which we explored here through a series of interviews with Greg Costikyan, Stephanie Barish, and Eric Zimmerman a little over a year ago. I have long argued that games need a strong independent sector if they are going to escape the constraints which a studio mode of production can impose on artistic expression. This seems to have been the year where that surge of creativity was felt in the games industry much as this year’s Oscars reflected the continued creative dominance of independent films (not to mention the globalization of the movie industry, another topic for another day!)

In any case, the conversation which Eitan has started aroung GAMBIT was so interesting that I wanted to share it with my readers.

GDC 2008 Round Up

by Eitan Glinert

The Game Developer’s Conference, GDC for short, is the annual meeting of the entire video games industry: from studio executives to indie developer to academics, just about everyone who works with games for a living either attends or follows the proceedings. Last year I covered some of the more interesting presentations; this year I’ll discuss some of the prevalent themes to come out of the conference.

Conventional wisdom tells that commercial video games are generally derivative. Almost all first person shooters inherit huge portions of their gameplay from Doom, which in turn borrowed from Wolfenstein 3D. Most of today’s racing games have the same core game mechanics as Pole Position, an Atari offering from early 1980′s. Now, this isn’t to say there say that there hasn’t been any innovation; surely, objective based missions, multiplayer capabilities and narrative storylines have improved the FPS genre, likewise realistic graphics and physics engines have made racing games far more enjoyable. However, it seemed that these innovations tended to be incremental in nature, and that the best selling games tended to be the ones that didn’t stray too far from prior accomplishments (the Madden football series comes to mind).

Well, at least that was the conventional wisdom. Recently there has been a shift in the industry, and it seems like this year more than most innovation has been greatly rewarded. This was especially evident at the Game Developer’s and Independent Game Festival awards ceremonies, the video game world’s version of the Oscars. Many of the winners and nominees were relative newcomers with interesting new game mechanics, and these games frequently beat out competition from large studios with long standing franchises. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the “game of the year” category, in which Portal, a short puzzle game in which you use a personal wormhole generator to escape a prison-like lab, beat out favorites like Super Mario Galaxy and Rock Band.

I feel that much of what I saw can be grouped into three non-exclusive themes: Games as art, space/time manipulation games, and user generated + independent games.

Games as Art

I’ve heard a lot of talk about whether or not games can serve as art, and apparently several developers have tried to address this issue in the past year with games that have heavily artistic components. Nominated for just about every award out there, Everyday Shooter is a game by Jon Mak which, on it’s surface, is just a regular “shoot anything that moves” game. However, it presents itself in album format – each level has a unique song track that marks the level’s progression, and gameplay that reflects the mood of the song. When the song ends, so does the level. Jason Rohrer’s Passage, downloadable here, is a short and interesting game that has a lot to say about life. Winning the best downloadable game of the year, flOw is a beautiful game that has you exploring an ocean, eating other fish, and probably enjoying the relaxing experience. Finally, The Night Journey is an interesting experimental offering that really is more of an art piece than a game. In it, the player explores a strange valley during the last minutes of dusk before nightfall, meditating upon past experiences along the way.

Space/Time Manipulation Games

A second theme I noticed was the prevalence of games that focus on manipulating space and time in interesting new ways. The most well known of this group is Portal, which made huge waves this year with it’s puzzle/FPS/comedy mix. In the game you have a portal gun, which can shoot two sides of a wormhole upon (just about) any surface. These two sides are then linked in space, allowing users to rapidly hop between two remote locations. If the concept sounds confusing, pick up the game or watch one of the myriad youtube videos and it’ll make more sense. Another game called Fez has the user taking the role of a 2D avatar in a 3D world, shifting the world viewpoint to solve spatial puzzles.

Playing with time was also prominently showcased, with many popular games like Cursor x10 and The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. In both these games, a single player is faced with what is essentially a multiplayer game, and needs to control different versions of himself in time to accomplish certain goals. Need to get over a gap? No problem, just clone yourself several times, and stand on a tower of you!

User Generated + Independent Games

With all this focus on new and innovate games, it should come as little surprise that the game dev environment is becoming much friendlier for indie developers (i.e. anyone with a computer, some talent, and the desire to make their own game). Microsoft announced the creation of the XBox community, which promises to be the youtube of the games world. Of course, it is only available on the Xbox 360, but at least it will give burgeoning developers the chance to release their work to the greater community. Microsoft should also be commended for releasing useful toolkits for these indie developers, the only real problem as I see it is the lack of a payment structure in which the person who made the game can actually make money off their work. Then again, youtube doesn’t have a payment structure, and there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of people clamoring to put their content out for the world to view.

Beyond the Microsoft announcement, many of the award winners and nominees were small, interesting games made by small or single person teams. Audiosurf, Crayon Physics, and World of Goo all took big honors, and show the creativity people can have when they think outside the realm of what’s normal for games. Even Portal started out as a small student project, with a few Digipen students creating the prototype as a Half Life 2 modification. Valve was smart enough to pick them up and now, two years later, they won best game of the year. Will other big developers follow their example?

What Will be Next?

So that’s my analysis of the big themes from this year’s GDC. I’m now going to do something dangerous and potentially foolish, and hazard a prediction about one interesting theme we’ll be seeing in coming years: new user interfaces. We’ve been playing video games for years with roughly the same interface – joystick(s), buttons, mouse, keyboard. But that’s now changing. We’ve already seen how new controllers like the Wiimote or Guitar Hero guitars can radically change how we interact with games. I suspect that the future games will really drive in this direction, and we’ll start seeing incredibly intuitive new user interfaces that are so natural that you don’t even need instructions to play. Several companies had their own take on head tracking virtual reality displays, copying work by Carnegie Mellon grad student Johnny Lee, and despite some hiccups during a live demo Emotiv had some interesting new brain motoring hardware which could be used as controller input. I think this is the tip of the iceberg, and that over the next few years we’ll see some really engaging new interfaces that will make today’s controllers seem quaint by comparison.

Eitan Glinert is a MIT Computer Science Master’s student, graduating this May. He’s worked on educational and accessible game titles like Immune Attack and AudiOdyssey, and most recently helped create Zen Waves, a digital take on the Zen garden. After graduating he will be doing a startup to explore how to make games with meaningful new user interfaces. For more information you can check out his blog at www.eitanglinert.com.