May 8, 2005

Post-post-GDC Post

by Andrew Stern · , 6:59 pm

Better late than never, I hope — here’s a writeup of my experience of last March’s Game Developers Conference. Perhaps the nine weeks that have passed since GDC has given me some additional long-term perspective on it all.

Personally I had less fun at this year’s conference compared to last year, because I was more stressed out this time. I was to moderate a high-profile panel on interactive story, give a programming talk and live demo with Michael on natural language in games (which we were still preparing for until minutes before the talk), and try to network with game developers that we may try to work with in the future — all self-imposed tasks of course. But all that was enough of a load to put me into a sleep-disturbed funk for the entire GDC week and beyond.

(But now I’m feeling better, especially because our interactive drama project is now so close to completion — it has taken forever to finish up all the niggling details, but we’re really, really close.)

Okay. Informed by this year’s GDC, in this post I’d like to summarize my impressions of the overall state of commercial interactive entertainment development, as well as my take on the state of interactive story development.

I did manage to attend most of the notable presentations at GDC, including the outrageous rant Burning Down the House, Will Wright’s Spore demo, the Emily Dickinson Game Design Challenge, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and the Independent Games Festival. None of them made a huge impression on me, including my panel, Why Isn’t the Game Industry Making Interactive Stories?

The rant was entertaining, and there were a few interesting points — Brenda Laurel reminded us that agency in virtual worlds is not agency in the real world, and Chris Hecker’s sneak-peek observation that the next generation console machines will be so CPU weak that it will greatly hamper AI innovation in future games. But overall I didn’t learn a whole lot during the hour, or come away feeling particularly pleased or inspired.

Spore was impressive in scope, and the procedural animation was nice (although less amazing than I thought it would be), and I appreciated Will’s attempt to explain their lightweight-prototype-centric approach to game design, but the truth is I’m unsure about how big of a hit Spore will really be, because I think it’s very science-y in theme. Well, I’m sure it will be a huge hit, but perhaps not with the mass appeal of the Sims. But that’s okay, of course; Will Wright has the wherewithal to make the game he and his team really wants to make, and it’s great to see that happening. And the more we can get people interested in science, especially kids, the better I suppose; it’ll be an enriching game that way.

The Emily Dickinson Challenge was a cool idea, but the presentations weren’t that satisfying to me. (That’s okay, I’m not complaining really; it’s a very difficult design challenge!) Clint Hocking’s design was the most ambitious and serious take on the problem, but I found it overwrought and confusing. Peter Molyneux’s demo was dazzling and seductive (I really liked it) but it had little or nothing to do with Emily Dickinson. And Will Wright, probably hoping that if he presented a farcical game design he would get to relinquish his crown and be not forced to participate yet again next year, failed; that is, he won. (I suspect he’ll anoint someone else to compete in his place next year.)

I found the Independent Games Festival lackluster. While it is inspiring to hear about how the Alien Hominid guys and other folks mortgaged their houses to fund the development of their games, too bad the games are pretty much just more of the same traditional game genre stuff, e.g. 2D-side-scrollers / platformers. Snore.

The Indie Game Jam theme, “People Interacting”, ultimately wasn’t as successful as last year’s awesome “2D Physics Engine” theme, but I applaud their ambition. The thing I liked the most about this year’s results was how several participants said, “People are hard“. No shit! While I was underwhelmed by the games produced, I found this Jam useful if only to demonstrate that point. Jammers had access to the complete set of Sims 1 models and animations, which is such a great resource, but in only four days time there’s not a whole lot you can do, other than using people as game pieces. (Apparently there were also the problem that the game engine wasn’t fully ready for the Jam, further hampering development.)

The rest of the Experimental Game Jam was spotty. I didn’t fully grasp the nature of the interactive narrative elements described in Jane McGonigal’s presentation of I Love Bees; hopefully she can re-describe that to us at some point. The gem of the Workshop was certainly Ragdoll Kung Fu, which just looked plain amazing, and an excellent example of innovation in game design coming from scrappy, passionate, self-funded individuals — and would have dominated the IGF had it been entered there. (Even though it now appears it will be released by Lionhead, my impression was that the game was developed on personal time over several years.)

And that’s where I’ll make my point about the state of the industry. We can rant about it all we want, but the truth is, developers don’t have much control over the blockbuster/sequel-oriented direction of the industry. I think it’s safe to say for the forseeable future, game development will continue on its current path, and there’s probably nothing to stop it. But we can do something in parallel. The only solution I can see, that I’ve said before and will say again, that I believe is eminently do-able, is for individuals to break away on their own and develop their own independent games, in a self-funded, lifestyle-sacrificing way as needed. There’s a lot of talented, experienced professionals who have cut their teeth making games they don’t like; they now need to quit their jobs for a couple of years and survive on peanut butter, or at least switch to part-time, and apply their skills and experience to making new, interesting games. Ragdoll Kung Fu seems like a perfect example; it sounds like it was a grueling, difficult project. But the results are worth it.

These indie games will be smaller than today’s massive GTA‘s and Half Life‘s. But smaller can be better — the price point can be lower, and time commitment from players can be less. Even think of them as shorts if you have to. (Note I’m imagining projects more ambitious than much of today’s indie games, including this year’s IGF.) Internet publishing makes this all the more feasible, of course.

I truly believe this is possible, folks. You just have to be committed to making it happen, and put yourself through some pain. But life’s too short to do otherwise, isn’t it? WTF!

How’s it all going to actually pan out? The game industry will of course continue to make huge-budget blockbuster sequels indefinitely, but also in parallel there will be a few small groups that make innovative hit/cult products in their garages. And this will be the state of interactive entertainment for some time to come. Realistically, does anyone else see it working differently?

Additionally I’m starting to see the seeds of an indie game movement from the small game prototypes coming out of grad schools, some of which were presented at the EGW. It seems so possible that a smart group of kids fresh out of school (or even in school) could create something amazing.

In a future post, towards this goal of indie game innovation, I’d like to pitch an idea for how game developers can work on academic game research projects, in a mutually-beneficial way. But I’ll save that post for later.

Okay, now part 2 of this post: the state of interactive story development, and the related panel I moderated.

In hindsight, I was a little naive about what could really be accomplished in this panel. My hope was to present three forward-thinking game developers of narrative-oriented games with three carefully-constructed questions (powerpoint) that cut to heart of the matter, that would generate productive answers.

I have my own answers to these questions (although as moderator couldn’t speak them), and was very curious to hear game industry giants Warren Spector, Neil Young and Tim Schafer’s take on them. Turns out, they don’t really have good answers for them, at least when it comes to solutions.

I suppose I should have seen this coming. These are folks who have to build games today, right now, under heavy budget and risk constraint. Although they’ve taken on some daring experiments, some which may succeed and others that have failed, I’m realizing they’re just not in a position to think too far outside the box, to push hard on innovation. That’s simply not a luxury available to them. (Or if they do have ideas, they’re not speaking about them in public.)

Everyone agrees that real progress in interactive story is very hard problem. But when asked if we need revolutionary, not evolutionary steps taken to make real progress in interactive story, they pretty much dodged the question. But really, were they in a position to agree? To admit that the current methods of game development are unlikely to result in significant progress towards real interactive story?

I wanted to make sure that at least some of the ongoing research in interactive story was presented on the panel. However the GDC organizing committee told me early on I was only allowed three panelists. So I sort of “snuck” Michael onto the panel, under the condition that he only speak at the end of the discussion about future directions. This arrangement was confusing to some in the audience, and was made further awkward by the fact that the chairs were laid out in such a way to not allow Michael to sit next to the other three; some intepreted this as “academia vs. industry”, which was unfortunate.

Anyhow… my take on the state of interactive story is about the same as my take on the game industry in general. It’s going to require independent, self-funded teams to push the envelope. High-agency interactive story is a very, very hard problem, and I’m less bullish than Chris Crawford on how soon we’ll see a truly satisfying interactive story. And based on what didn’t get said at the panel, I just don’t think that game companies are set up to do the required level of innovation.

However I did *not* get a sense that the interest from players and developers in interactive story is on the decline. It’s just that there is little or no progress to speak of.

Also, I have to admit I’m cynical about how quickly the game industry will move towards procedurality, e.g. algorithmically-generated models, textures, animations, behaviors, versus hand-made ones. There’s some lip service being paid to it, Spore is an early example of it, and I wish it were true, but I have a feeling progress will be pretty slow.

So, to sum up: at this year’s GDC the industry showed no signs of getting healthier, and if anything it continues to get more hostile to innovation. And so, it will require grassroots efforts (folks in their garages, or self-funded startups) to create interesting, exciting new interactive experiences. This is certainly possible to achieve with enough determination, inspiration and perspiration. I have faith we’ll see this happen, although probably slowly. I can’t imagine a future otherwise. We should set our expectations appropriately, and get to work.